Malawi's Esther Jolobala Breaks Barriers to Achieve Political Milestone
Jolobala defied monumental odds to secure her place in Malawi's political landscape, entering the National Assembly half a century after the country's independence.
MACHINGA, MALAWI - In a remarkable feat of determination and resilience, Esther Jolobala, a strong-willed woman from Malawi, has shattered gender norms and political barriers to become the first female legislator in the Machinga East Constituency, marking a milestone in her nation's political landscape, writes Jenipher Changwanda.
Jolobala, a symbol of resilience and determination, defied monumental odds to secure her place in Malawi's political landscape, entering the National Assembly half a century after the country's independence.
In 2014, she embarked on an audacious journey by approaching the residents of Machinga East Constituency in southeastern Malawi, seeking their endorsement as their Member of Parliament (MP).
This bold move was poised to make her the first female legislator to represent the constituency, a journey she acknowledges was far from easy.
Traditionally, the people of Machinga East entrusted the responsibility of selecting their representative in the National Assembly to individuals they believed possessed the qualities needed for the role.
In this predominantly Islamic region, women rarely contested public positions, often remaining in the political shadows and sometimes ceding public positions like MP and Councillor to their male counterparts, even when not entirely deserving.
Jolobala challenged this long-standing tradition, albeit at a significant political cost, emerging triumphant and reshaping the mindset of the community – challenging the notion that women in politics should be underestimated.
Jolobala dedicated herself to breaking this culture and demonstrating to fellow women and her community that active participation in politics, including securing key positions within political parties and the District Council, was not only feasible but essential.
Her vision was to develop a constituency that had languished in underdevelopment for years under male legislators.
Hailing from a humble background, Jolobala's campaign to convey her manifesto to the voters was far from straightforward.
Her constituents were accustomed to politicians who ran well-funded campaigns, supported either by political parties or influential business figures who frequently distributed incentives to voters.
In stark contrast, Jolobala embarked on a mission to reshape mindsets, an approach that ultimately paid off.
"People were searching for financial stability, and my campaign needed significant financial backing. Unlike other candidates who had the backing of political parties, I was not asked to represent the community. However, I felt compelled to persevere due to the challenges facing our community. Essentially, I asked the community to represent themselves," Jolobala explained.
Her campaign faced its first significant hurdle during the party primaries when the results were manipulated in favour of a male candidate.
Undeterred, Jolobala made a pivotal decision – she declared her candidature as an independent, fueled by her unwavering commitment to achieving 50/50 equal representation.
The 50-50 campaign initiative played a vital role in mobilising support for Jolobala, uniting constituents from all corners of her constituency in favour of a woman's candidature.
It emphasised the significance of gender equity in decision-making processes and underscored the importance of equal representation for both men and women.
As a member of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Malawi adopted the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development in 2009, further amplifying the goals of the 50-50 campaign.
This campaign has contributed to a gradual yet steady increase in women's political participation in Malawi's Parliament, reaching 33 percent in 2009, 16 percent in 2014, and 23 percent in 2019.
It encourages widespread support for female candidates, providing essential financial and moral support and offering capacity-building training to enhance public speaking skills and persuasive tactics.
Jolobala's political journey has taught her the critical importance of fulfilling campaign promises and implementing equal representation.
She has directed her efforts towards improving the education sector to combat high school dropout rates, particularly due to long commutes to and from school.
Through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), she has overseen the construction of primary school blocks in Nsambira, Chitimba, and Mapundu, as well as a Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in Nankuyu, and a hostel at Mtanja CDSS—measures aimed at reducing school dropout rates.
Additionally, Jolobala has championed the provision of piped water in all four health centres—Nayuchi, Namanja, Nanyumbu, and Ntaja—to alleviate challenges faced by women in maternity wards.
She has personally funded the acquisition of an ambulance to address maternal health needs in the surrounding communities.
Recognising the importance of economic empowerment, Jolobala has provided women and youths with valuable skills and loans for small businesses, ultimately helping to reduce poverty and unemployment.
In her role as a member of the Women's Caucus in Parliament in 2019, she advocated for the inclusion of menstrual health packages for female inmates in the national budget, aiming to eliminate period poverty.
Jolobala's commitment to justice extends to her appointment as an ambassador for persons with albinism in 2016, where she has actively fought against the killings and kidnappings of persons with albinism in Malawi.
Her unwavering dedication has borne fruit, with the 2019 parliamentary elections witnessing a 37.5 percent increase in female parliamentarians—a testament to Malawians' growing confidence in women's political leadership.
Records from the National Assembly and the Malawi Electoral Commission reveal that 44 women were elected to represent their constituents up until 2024.
Among these, 13 retained their seats, 31 were new entrants, and five made a triumphant return to parliament after falling short in the 2014 tripartite elections.
"The results demonstrate that Malawi is steadily progressing towards gender parity in political representation," remarked Lingalireni Mihowa, Oxfam Malawi Country Director.
"This is the highest number Malawi has ever recorded, surpassing the 43 female parliamentarians in 2009, a number that declined to 32 in the 2014 parliament."
Oxfam, along with other organisations, pledged post-election support for the Women's Caucuses in Parliament and Councils, emphasising the need for electoral law reforms and promoting positive narratives and perceptions of women's political participation and leadership in Malawi.
Despite the challenges and against all odds, women like legislator Esther Jolobala are reshaping Malawi's political landscape, signalling a promising future for women's political engagement.
This might be only the beginning of transformative changes in Malawi's political arena.
*Jenipher Changwanda is a Malawian journalist. Gender Links supported the story of enhancing women's political participation.