In praise of women and youth

This is an odd column to write in 2016. It should be obvious, not so, that women and youth are a critical mass in developing nations? But here I am, making a case for the inclusion of women and youth in the development of Malawi and our attempt at consolidating democracy. Why?

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A lady sells groundnuts as an entrepreneurial means to support her familly. Blantyre, May 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: THOKO CHIKONDI.

A lot of it has to do with a brutal system of patriarchy that is commonplace around the world. This system engenders the superiority of men more than it does women and other sexes. Here in Malawi, we still suffer the same complex and the results have meant women are continuously marginalised, routinely pushed aside and excluded from contributing in the development of this country.

Yes, we have made some strides and we have registered key milestones, including having a woman, in Joyce Banda, run the highest office in this land. Still, we need to ask, what the emancipatory dividend of such milestones has been. In other words, what did we do with all the progress that has been made?

This question is important because it begs us to go beyond ticking all the right boxes and recording historical firsts, to actually demanding a full audit of what such developments mean, especially to those with neither voice to speak nor power to effect change. In this regard, women’s contributions are measured, analysed and used to demonstrate certain patterns. Yet, patriarchy — in most cases — gives men a free pass and does not allow for similar or even more vigorous scrutiny of their contributions.

The other marginalised section of the population are young people, the youth. In speeches, this section is mostly referred to as the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. Have you ever wondered, however, what would happen if tomorrow never comes? What would happen to the hopes, dreams and aspirations carried by these young people? Do they get deferred? Do they just wither? Who knows?

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A young man sells jerry cans at Limbe Market in Blantyre. He is one of the many young job seekers who are increasingly pushed into the informal sector in a desperate bid to survive in a tough economic climate. PHOTO CREDIT: THOKO CHIKONDI

Our population has majority women and youth but you will be hard-pressed to point at areas in which these demographics are central to plans and visions for this country. On the contrary, where the demographics are reflected, they appear to be subordinate to patriarchy and are unable to exercise agency and express themselves. Whenever you end up with old, unimaginative and out of touch men in power, the consequences are damning.

Here in Malawi, our national plans visions hardly exceed five years, the time it normally takes to conduct national elections. This means that such plans are always aimed at capturing State power as opposed to using that very power to transform the country. So yes, we are ticking all the right boxes in terms of holding regular elections but what is the dividend for such a democratic practice? Have we not overlooked the need to impress upon those who get voted into power to deliver tangible results by considering it enough to hold elections alone?

Consider every elected government since 1994. How much planning has been done by each of those to look at, say, 30 years into the future? Even 20 years, to be kind? Oh, Vision 2020 you ask? Where are we on that? When was the last time you heard about it? If you did, how fired up were you by it?

What big plans do we currently have for the country? Where are the plans for the super highways, the rail network that will link the whole country? Where are the plans for growing Malawi’s aviation industry? Indeed, where are the plans to turn Malawi into a manufacturing hub in central and southern Africa? Where are the plans for building laboratories that will drive scientific research in Malawi? Where is the plan to harness the power of Lake Malawi, say for dealing with our challenges with electricity supply? Where are the plans for food diversity and for food security?

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Children scavenge for maize floor at a maize mill in the hunger stricken southern district of Chikwawa. PHOTO CREDIT: THOKO CHIKONDI

If your government is made up of doddering old men, tired and uninspired, these plans are not going to reveal themselves so easily, unfortunately. This is why we need to seriously think about the role women and youth can play in accelerating development in Malawi. Among these groups, there are energies, experiences and dreams which, if tapped into, can lead to a revolution that will transform the face of this country.

At the heart of it all, however, is leadership.

So, what is this country doing to build the capacities of women and youth so that they can be central to Malawi’s development? If there is something we so desperately need, then it is more women and youth in positions of responsibility and with just the vision and energy to take us into a future in which our citizenship is not only inspired but delivers positive results as well.

BY LEVI KABWATO

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