As Malawi prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, women have embarked on a campaign for equal access to parliamentary seats. Championing the efforts are the Ministry of Women and Child Development and an umbrella body of women, the Gender Coordination Network. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Lameck Masina in Blantyre says the crusade dubbed the "50:50 Campaign" is in line with the African Union declaration calling for member countries to ensure that women make up half of all legislative bodies.

Organizations supporting the effort include OXFAM, Danish Church Aid, Action Aid International, the United Nations Population Fund, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation.

Esnat Nawanga is the program officer for Gender Political Governance and Civil Society at the Royal Norwegian Embassy. He says, "One of the priority areas of the Norwegian government is to increase the participation of women in politics and decision-making positions, and when the request came for this intervention we saw that it is very important to support Malawi because the representation of women at decision-making level is very low."

Reen Kachere is the chairperson of the network's Permanent Committee of Women in Politics. She says the primary goal of the crusade is to have 50 percent or more women holding parliamentary positions after next May's elections, "If you look at the current 15 percent [of women's representation in parliament], all issues pertaining to women are not well represented in parliament and we always lose out."

Kachere says there is overwhelming evidence in Malawi on the difference women bring to the table when they are in key decision-making positions. She cites the role women parliamentarians played in passing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill in 2006.

Jane Antony is one of the aspiring female MPs for the opposition Maravi People's Party: "I am competing against two gentlemen. Financially, I suppose I could be weaker than the men. If my friends are able to [contribute] money and I am not able to, [then that puts me at a] disadvantage. Also, culturally, people have to accept that I can deliver [legislative services] like any man and do things that anybody can do."

According to the program, the women candidates will be trained in assertiveness, advocacy, lobbying and campaigning. They will also receive $700 for start-up campaign money and media exposure. In constituencies where there are no female candidates, the 50:50 campaign may work to introduce a willing woman politician as an independent candidate.

But Kachere says not every woman who wants to run will benefit from the program:

"We will not just going to pick any other woman. In areas where they have done primaries and voted for men we are going to strategize and see which type of women we are going to put. And we are also saying that if political parties just put women for the sake of putting them we are not going to support them. We will support women who will deliver. Women are going to influence change."

It's not only women that want to see the number of women increase. Billy Banda is a prominent Malawian civil rights activist. He says it is vital to elect women to Parliament because they know better than anyone how hard it can be to get basic resources like water and firewood.

Kachere says the organization is currently holding community-based awareness forums to inform traditional and religious leaders about the advantages of voting for women. In Malawi, chiefs and heads of religious organizations are influential within communities and command great respect.

Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika has since promised to support the effort. But skeptics say it will be very hard to have an equal number of men and women in Malawi's parliament considering the patriarchal nature of the society, which long has been to confine a woman's role to the kitchen.