Upile Ajibu walks gracefully to her mud-and-thatch hut balancing a tin pail of water on her head. This is the fifth the 33-year-old mother of four has drawn today. ‘We normally use only two pails but I keep the others just in case,’ she says. That is, in case her water supply dries up, as it sometimes does. Even here, next to Africa’s third-largest lake – one of the last surviving freshwater lakes in the world.
Ajibu says her family only uses the lake water for bathing, washing and resealing her mud floor. ‘The water in the lake is not safe,’ she says. ‘You can get cholera and other diseases.’ Ajibu should know: she is a member of the influential Village Development Committee (VDC) of Mangochi district, about 200 kilometres from Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre.
The Village Development Committee looks after all development issues in the district but women dominate the water committee. ‘Everything to do with water safety they leave to us,’ says Ajibu proudly. This, albeit on a small scale, is a significant elevation of women’s status in a society where women still play second fiddle to men. For instance, in Malawi’s national parliament today there are only five women in President Bakili Muluzi’s thirty-nine member Cabinet. Of 193 parliamentarians, only 17 are women.
And the reason for this turn-around in traditional decision-making power? In 1981 the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) launched a project to assist Malawi’s low-income earners acquire safe drinking water. The Urban Communal Water Point Project was aimed at constructing 600 communal water points for about 4,000 low-income households in 50 selected urban centres throughout the country.
Dr Mekki Mtewa, a US-trained social scientist and legislator for the Mangochi area, explains that in all the tap committees men dominated despite being traditionally only end users of water. The result? ‘Almost all the projects flopped because the men just did not care where their women got the water,’ he recalls. The taps were not properly maintained. Most men even refused to give their wives – most of whom do not have paid work – the token contribution fees for water maintenance that the committees prescribed.
A serious review of the project was carried out in 1988 where stakeholders (most of them men) conceded that the project had failed because women – who are the main water users – were sidelined. ‘A national decision was adopted then to include more women in key positions and keep the men in more advisory technical roles,’ said Dr Mtewa.
It was thought to be important not to banish men completely from the committees because most women in Malawi are not educated. More than twice as many men can read as women. But Upile Ajibu of the Mangochi VDC is semi-literate herself and that does not stop her from making decisions about water. ‘One does not have to go to school to know that unclean water breeds diseases like cholera,’ she says tongue-in-cheek.
Although this turn-around happened nearly 15 years ago, its effects have been lasting – even though Ajibu has never actually heard of the UNCDF-sponsored Urban Communal Water Point Project. Her committee controls water supply projects sponsored by the World Bank-funded Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF). In place since the year 2000, it has a male supervisor but nine of the twelve members are women. ‘Men and boys do not draw water,’ she says, ‘so they have no business dominating water committees.’
As for the men, they seem to have taken everything in their stride. George Masauko is one of three men on the committee. ‘We men are called in when there is a fault, otherwise the daily running of the project is in their (women’s) hands,’ he says.
In the Mangochi district – largely a Muslim dominated area – men still make all the major decisions. The water committees should slowly help to change all that. Recently, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) – a 14-member economic bloc along the lines of the European Union (EU) – agreed that all decision-making bodies in Southern Africa should have at least 30-per-cent or more women. Looking at the success of the Mangochi women-dominated water committee, local MP Dr Mtewa is so impressed that he intends to review the composition of other development committees in his constituency. ‘We want more women on other committees as well, even if their core duty is not directly to do with all-women issues.’
This attitude prevails even though the water system nearly collapsed during the famine that gripped the country between December 2001 and March 2002. Faults developed, people started drinking from the lake and the communities experienced the worst cholera attacks for years. The people of Mangochi do not blame the water committees. They understand that the energy of everyone during that time had to be redirected towards gathering food to stave off starvation. So the confidence that the community has in the water committees remains intact. Ajibu says some of the decisions left for men to make about water projects are now largely symbolic. ‘We might hold elections soon but really that depends on the chief,’ she says.
As I bid her farewell, Ajibu is being called to an urgent meeting at the VDC. A young man was caught during the night urinating near one of the taps in the committee’s jurisdiction. She has to be party to deciding the young man’s fate. ‘It depends on the age of the offender,’ she tells me. ‘If he is young, his parents pay a fine and he cleans his mess, but if he is old and probably drunk we refer him to the chief who can fine him a goat.’
Why – in an article about the empowerment of women – has NI commissioned a male writer? Well, finding a female journalist in Malawi to do this story proved just too difficult. Apparently, sexual harassment from senior editors and male news sources is hindering the development of female journalists in that country – a barrier that our male Malawi correspondent, Raphael Tenthani, has written about. So, while Malawi tap-water committees offer some insights into how the gender imbalance can be tipped toward women, Malawi still has a long way to go.
As in Malawi’s Mangochi district, women around the world want representation in the decision-making bodies that affect them. Yet despite the 1995 recommendation of the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing that 30 per cent of parliamentary seats should be held by women by 2005, the global average 5 years later was less than half that (14.3 per cent ). In Malawi’s fledgling democracy – where multi-party elections were not held until 1994 – women only have around 9 per cent of national parliamentary seats. But even those countries regarded as having developed democracies are dragging their feet. Canada has 21-per-cent female representation in its lower house, Australia 25 per cent, Britain 18 per cent and the US just 14 per cent.1
Some countries, however, are making spectacular progress. In nations where male politicians have the understanding and commitment to share parliamentary power with women, the introduction of informal party quotas (whereby political parties agree to field a minimum number of women in elections) have been enough to change the balance of gender power. Leading the world is Sweden, with women now comprising 44 per cent of its parliamentary representatives. Similarly, in South Africa the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has coupled a quota to ensure that at least 30 per cent of the candidates it fields are women with laws to give women equal participation in decision-making. As a consequence, the proportion of women in parliament has jumped from 2.4 per cent during pre-1994 apartheid, to 29.8 per cent today. But where there’s no will, there’s no way… even when laws are passed saying it must be so. Although 10 South American countries have adopted quota laws, results have been mixed. Only three countries have come anywhere near to meeting the legal quota. Two of these countries – Costa Rica and Argentina – have had to couple their quotas with ‘placement mandates’ to get results. These require women to be placed high enough on their parties’ lists to be elected. Thus, when Costa Rican quota laws required political parties to reserve a 40-per-cent minimum of candidacies for women in the 1998 elections, parties put women near the bottom of their tickets. Consequently, only 19 per cent of those elected to its Congress that year were women. However, in this year’s election, women’s presence in Congress jumped to 35 per cent. The reason? In 2000, the country’s Supreme Electoral Court issued a ruling that required women to be placed in electable positions on all party lists. Argentina has a similar experience in translating quota principles into practice, only making the shift when women activists repeatedly challenged their non-compliance in court.2
Fielding women candidates can be a hollow victory if they are not resourced to campaign effectively and confidently. Vietnam – whose proportion of women parliamentarians fell from 32 per cent in 1975 to 18 per cent in the 1990s – came back in its 1997 election with 26 per cent of females in its Assembly after a widespread and well-resourced leadership training-programme for female candidates before the elections. Recognizing that voters too need educating, a press conference was held to promote images of women in leadership and push for greater representation of women in government. Uganda, where 25 per cent of its national legislators are women, is now training those elected on how to use their parliamentary power effectively. And Malawi is now placing more emphasis on training-up female politicians – so that they too can turn on the taps to the laws and policies they live by.Chris Richards
More reading: ‘Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers’ offers tools and options for strengthening the participation of women in political processes in English, French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesian editions. Contact International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) at email@example.com or Tel: +46 8 698 3700 (Stockholm) for more information.
- Mala N. Htun. 2002. ‘Mujeres y poder político en Latinoamérica (Women in Power in Latin America)’, en International IDEA, Mujeres en el Parlamento. Más allá de los números (Women In Parliament: Beyond Numbers), Stockholm, Sweden, pp. 19-43.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7