Yesterday was the joint seminar between Scotland’s Active Learning Centre on Empowering Women. The event was the culmination of a 3 year Scottish Government funded project on empowering women.
The walls were covered with posters outlining the work that had taken place with women MPs and local communities in their constituencies.
As with all aspects of life in Malawi resources are scarce and limit the capacity of community involvement and engagement. The MPs were therefore very positive about the local workshops they and their local communities had participated in. One of the developments that the Malawi Parliament is currently planning would see parliamentary offices being established which would support more local engagement with constituents.
Since I was last in Malawi in 2008 the numbers of women parliamentarians has increased with 44 women members elected in 2009. However, only 4 women members of the 193 Malawi National Assembly were re-elected. This has created a debate about retention of women members as people focus on next year’s elections.
While in the UK there is an acceptance by parties that elected representatives who have worked hard and built up support will be generally be allowed to fly the flag for their party again, there is no similar expectation in Malawi.
The workshop was therefore a chance for the parliamentarians to debate how to empower women and discuss strategy with NGOs and donor Government representatives. It was also open to the media and Malawi’s main TV channel and newspapers. Our attendance at the seminar alongside the Minister for Gender was newsworthy.
My speech was on the Scottish experience and highlighted the difference that Labour’s twinning and zipping of candidates for the Scottish Parliament and all women shortlists for MP selections has made to political culture in Scotland. I also argued that creating a higher proportion of women MSPs had also seen women emerge into leadership positions too with the last decade seeing women leaders of parties for Labour and Conservative groups as well as a Deputy leader for the SNP. In addition to having a Deputy First Minister we have also had a raft of women ministers and committee conveners, and now Presiding Officer – again across the parties.
My colleague Alex Fergusson MSP outlined the work of a constituency member in Scotland and highlighted his local campaigning work for constituents – regardless of their political affiliation.
We had a lively discussion with some practical recommendations for attracting new women into politics and on retention. For retention it was argued that NGOs should be working with women on practical projects in constituencies and that the women MPs would also have to work harder at communicating what difference they had made to the lives of their constituents.
We were delighted to get feedback after the women’s caucus that in a meeting with all Malawi’s political parties a commitment to stronger support for women was given. While next year’s elections will be the acid test this is definitely a positive sign.