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Patience and Annis: Young Women Leaders

Starting at an early age, Patience Chifundo saw no reason a Malawian woman should be denied the same opportunities as a Malawian man. Her mother embodied this principle. She owned and drove a minibus, an unusual occupation for a woman in this country.

Patience saw the discrimination women faced in Malawi but had experienced little of it herself until she was a student at the elite Chancellor College and ran for student president. She had always been a precocious student and started college at the age of 15. Tradition is held in high regard at Chancellor College, and no woman had ever run for student body president. Patience did not win the election, but the discrimination she experienced as a candidate was a life-changing experience. When it became clear to her opponents—all of them male—that she had a formidable intellect, they agreed to all support one of their number who had the best chance of winning against “the girl.”

After graduation, Patience joined the Young Politicians Union, an organization of people from her own generation as passionate as she was to invigorate political debate in Malawi. She describes her experience with the Young Politicians Union as the practicum to her classroom education in political theory at Chancellor College. Most of the other women affiliated with the organization had none of the background in political theory that she did. These women came to meetings with nursing babies and little else besides bus fare home. They inspired her and through them she learned how politics actually works at the grassroots level.

One such woman is Annis Luka, a subsistence farmer from the Phalombe district in the southern region of the country. When Annis finished secondary school, she could not find a job and was forced to return home to farm with family members. She lives with 12 family members, including her parents, siblings, and a 7-year-old daughter. They grow maize, rice, sugar cane, and groundnuts, but do not earn enough to provide a buffer against the annual hungry season.

When students at Chancellor College needed to raise money for an event, they invited political leaders, candidates, intellectuals, and artists to speak or perform, and they could count on a paying crowd. Annis funds her activities by dedicating a share of her maize production to pay the expenses, but first ensures that no one else in the household has to go hungry to support her political work.

The intergovernmental agency Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recommends: “Invest in leadership development and mentoring, especially for young women. Strive to make politics an accessible arena for low-income women and women from rural areas, whose representation has been constrained by the high cost of campaigning.”

Photo credit: Patience Chifundo has political ambitions, but believes Malawian women of her generation still face many disadvantages being accepted as capable leaders.

Photo Credit: Todd Post/Bread for the World