Updated: Jan 20
Published in the author’s personal capacity.
I will consider 2017 as an interesting year for Malawi in terms of addressing gender based violence…or, in short, GBV. Intimate partner violence became one area where the media reported on cases aggressively. It also put into spotlight 3 murder cases that came out within a space of a week. Unsurprisingly, the murdered were women.
Violence against women and girls (VAW) is a grave violation of human rights. Its impacts range from immediate to long-term multiple physical, sexual and mental consequences for women and girls, including death. It negatively affects women’s general well-being and prevents women from fully participating in the economy and society. It has tremendous costs, from greater health care and legal expenses and losses in productivity, impacting national budgets and overall development. Eventually, its consequences on families, the community and the country at large can hold national progress to ransom.
Notably, Malawi, in recognizing – at the core – that culture is a major root cause of GBV, enacted several laws on curbing its occurrence and impacts. However, it is worth noting that legislation alone does not have the jaws to crunch on cultural norms fueling harmful practices as sexual violence in the domestic setting. The pervasiveness of social norms and traditions mean socialization grooves in discriminatory perceptions of gender roles and power dynamics that justify sexual violence. The result is the inevitable enculturation of vices like intimate partner violence in marriage and other intimate relationships.
As a practitioner working in this area, I can attest to the negative impacts of GBV on the family, community and society. The cultural acceptance of sexuality, particularly male sexuality, in a deeply male-dominated and patriarchal culture continues to engender a culture of violence that victimizes women and children, particularly the girl child. Although small changes are notable, traditional customs and stereotypes are still deeply entrenched in Malawian society, perpetuating GBV as a fundamental concern in Malawi. Evidence suggests that 42% of ever-married women have experienced spousal violence, far outdoing the global average of one-in-three women. According to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) 2015-2016, 24% of ever-married women have experienced at least three types of specified marital control behaviours by their husbands. In contrast, 29% have never experienced any marital control behaviours by their husbands. The most common type of spousal violence is emotional violence (30%), followed by physical violence (26%) and sexual violence (19%) (MDHS 2016).
These are worrying prospects. The statistics above prove that we have a long way to go to dismantle the patriarchy and uproot the established norms which perpetrate gender based violence. I opine that, despite shifting social- cultural norms, not much effort nor financial resources have been invested in tackling gender based violence. Through my work in various communities, I observe the clear under-investment in programming the issue and to address the conduct at its roots.
The murder of three women in a two-month period made 2017 a turning point for media coverage and police reports. These raised the profile of intimate partner violence as the subject of national discourse. Social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp augmented the efforts to expose cases of grave misconduct perpetrated by high profile personalities who commit this terrible offence by abusing their power. Of course, social media triggered both negative and positive actions…and reactions. More importantly, the year revealed gaps in terms of sharing information through such platforms, in turn interrogating whether especially social media is the irresponsible way of sharing violent attestations.
Much needs to be done. The public, for instance, needs to be sensitized on sharing of graphic content, which is unlawful. To a degree, law enforcers, were quick to respond to such violations from social media platforms, although that did not completely cull the practice. The public outcry compelled the Malawi Police Service to lock up perpetrators of such acts of violence.
I stress, as I have before, the double-edgedness of social media in how it exposes GBV occurences while amplifying the ignorance of the general public to victims’ traumatic experiences let loose on continuous public display.
Another observation also noted last year was the lack of information sharing and learning key lessons among government agencies, donors and NGOs. These practitioners are lucky that to have access to information, a gift of the networks they work with. However, little information sharing is common. This is worsened by the limited reporting of GBV cases at the community level. Most community GBV studies and radio pragrams reveal this as a gap which is retogressing positive and coordinated steps by duty bearers.
But there are opportunities for players, communities and leaders to move from rhetoric to action. In an era where we must leave no one behind, Malawi must review its laws, policies and responsible institutions to identify loopholes in implementation. There is a desperate need for investments in this area if we are to make progress. Meagre resources mean GBV has the clean bill to flourishing. As noted above, a comprehensive package to nip GBV before it happens and, when it occurs, its response, requires good coordination. In 2016, the Ministry responsible for gender equality launched a National Response Plan (NAP) to address GBV and other harmful cultural practices.
Unfortunately, Malawi has, for too long, exceled at having only great policies and plans. Without an able and well-resourced coordinator, however, such efforts are bound to fail. Coordination on GBV is very poor at all levels in Malawi (e.g. National and district gender Technical Working Groups for example, at the district level are not very active). We know from a UK study on “What works to address VAWG” that, in order to prevent or respond to GBV or VAW, it is essential to have a good policy framework and commitment to prevention and response by government, judiciary, civil society. This requires that these institutions speak to one another.
I further opine that stakeholders like UN agencies have a wider platform to influnce actions on GBV by using ongoing campaigns like the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence and HeforShe. These camapigns fuel action and conversations on violence. It is critical, however, to make sure that these campaigns are populated at the grassroot level and to avoid them being cosmetic gatherings of the “converted.” These are great examples of platforms that coalesce actors.
By all means, Malawi must utilize its rich policies and progressive laws to curb all forms of violence, including intimate partner violence, as a prevalent form of GBV in Malawian society. Some of the lessons of last year must be used for actions that will result in low incidences of violence against women and girls. It is great to note the momentum that has been built through last years’ 16 Days of Activism against GBV, internally. International solidarity movements like #MeToo and #TimesUP also help to contextualize action. They enable public awareness about what violence is, where to report it and how to behave in the private and public domains.
This is an opportune time for renewed commitment and concrete actions by everyone. Malawi must capitalize on her national and international commitments to raise awareness, strengthen protection and prosecution response on GBV. At the end of the day, let us remember that GBV is as pervasive as it is a grave human rights violation that affects development in any society.