Women won just 12% of the seats in the 2014 local election in Malawi despite comprising 17% of the candidate pool. Under-representation of women in elected politics is more severe in Malawi than much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and the world average in part because Malawi has not adopted an electoral gender quota for women candidates at the local level. The 2014 election of local councilors took place almost ten years after the dissolution of local assemblies in 2005, and these new local councils are endowed with considerable political authority.
Three different data sources were gathered and analyzed: a citizen survey with an embedded conjoint experiment, biographical information on real candidates in one Malawian district, and focus group discussions with real candidates for local office. The primary component of the research was a survey experiment of 604 citizens from Malawi’s Kasungu district. The survey, fielded in support with a local research firm, asked each respondent to evaluate six different hypothetical candidate profiles, resulting in 3,579 total profiles evaluated. Biographical data was varied randomly across profiles—gender, age, ethnicity, profession, marital status, children, and top policy concern—in order to identify the factors most preferred by respondents. Surveys, read aloud in face-to-face interviews in respondents’ homes, asked citizens to rate each candidate profile on a 4-point scale. The second data source consisted of biographical data of candidates who ran in the 2014 local council election in Kasungu district. Though this biographical information, necessarily drawn from a convenience sample, was only available on half of the 135 candidates, the data provided a useful picture of the background of candidates for office. The final data source comprised transcripts from focus groups organized with candidates for the local council election. The four focus groups, divided by gender (11 women and 10 men), explored the divergent experiences between men and women on the campaign trail. Both winning and losing candidates were included.
Statistical analysis of the survey experiment found no apparent preference for men political candidates. In fact, the hypothetical women candidate profiles were rated slightly more favorably than the men. Voters preferred candidates with more education and more leadership experience, regardless of the candidate’s gender. Family status also weighed on voter preferences: married candidates with young children were significantly more popular than the alternatives. This fact, in conjunction with the biographical data from real candidates, reveals one challenge for women candidates: men candidates for local office were much more likely to hold the desired family status than the women. All of the men candidates were married compared with only half of the women. Men were also twice as likely to have young children in the home. Finally, the focus groups exposed further disadvantages for women. Six of the eleven women reported facing extreme gender-specific verbal abuse during the campaign, while two other women spoke in non-gendered terms about the verbal abuse they encountered. In particular, women candidates reported that their competitors would often accuse them of infidelity or sexual impropriety on the campaign trail. In contrast, none of the men participants reported experiencing gender-specific abuse, and only three of the ten men participants reported any kind of verbal abuse while campaigning. In sum, these findings suggest a structural disadvantage for the women who chose to run for office in Malawi, which may contribute to the wide gender disparity in political representation.
While women’s representation across all African parliaments has doubled during the past 15 years, in the absence of gender quota laws, women’s representation often remains stubbornly low. This study suggests that significant barriers for women’s participation in politics still remain. The results of this survey experiment in Malawi are similar to other studies conducted in Brazil, Japan, and the United States, where women are also underrepresented in elected office. Though voters appear to judge hypothetical candidates similarly regardless of gender, surveys may be ineffective at capturing the gender discrimination at play in elected politics if women face disproportionate public criticism. “Rumor mongering” is one example of a barrier women candidates face that is difficult to test with a survey experiment. This study cites other research suggesting that quotas guaranteeing women’s representation have proven an effective means of improving women’s numeric representation, especially in Africa.