Malawi’s Public Space: A Place for Women?
For most women in Malawi, a decision seemingly as simple as going to the market in the neighborhood to buy bread, charcoal or vegetables cannot be dealt with independently of considerations for safety, respect or dignity. As soon as the sun sets, one begins to question whether the errand is absolutely necessary, and if it can’t wait till the next day during daylight. If absolutely necessary, as it usually is if one has to fulfill gender roles that have also been socialized for millennia through discriminatory culture, we look for alternatives such as the accompaniment of a male companion or, if you are not of very limited means, sending the guard. Alas! Where safety in concerned, the only way to survive for Malawian women in these circumstances is through males.
Our country isn’t completely new to incidences of women being harassed in broad daylight for crimes against manhood such as walking to the market in short skirts, or parading ones rear endowments in what men have discerned to be “suggestive”. Drawing from examples in the recent past, it appears the recourse that males have preferred to take in Malawi is one that views such displays of a woman’s freedoms is to brand them “offensive”. What’s worse is they have resorted to their own solutions where the State is mum, mostly dehumanizing acts such as ripping off women’s clothing and catcalling. When Beatrice Mateyo publicly brandished a placard that screamed “kubadwa ndi nyini sitchimo, my vagina my pride (being born with a vagina is no sin,…)!” in September 2017 in support of women’s bodily autonomy, even the Malawi Police Service managed to find a suitable Law under which such indecency could be an arrestable offence. She got arrested. And a whole judge, born of a woman, was assigned the case.
The intersection of being a woman, living in Malawi and participating in the public space does not seem to augur well with the lived realities of women and girls in a country that says one thing on paper and does the opposite in practice. Malawi’s legal and policy framework emphasizes, however, that public spheres are to be safe for and accessible to all, yet they remain most unsafe for females. Our country even ratified Article 4 of the Maputo Protocol, which states that “every woman shall be entitled to respect for her life and the integrity and security of her person. All forms of exploitation, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.” As a Member State of UNESCO, which defines a public space as “an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level,” we are miserably failing to uphold these very simple tenets through appropriate enforcement so that all women and girls should not feel that their freedom is a double-edged sword that simultaneously puts them at risk. If we heeded the mumblings we ratify at all, Ms. Mateyo needed not to have seen a prison cell.
And yet, women and girls aren’t safe whether they are on the street, in public service buildings, markets and mass transport depots such as the Lilongwe Old Town bus depot, the bus park behind Lilongwe Shoprite, Limbe Market and Zomba bus depot, among many others. And as in Ms. Mateyo’s case, women are not safe in political manifestations where they cannot express themselves freely either. For some, the consequences have been dire – as in Veronica Kananga, who was stripped off of her clothes in 2019 in Mangochi for supporting the United Transformation Movement (UTM), or those women who were attacked in Blantyre for wearing trousers in 2012. Yes, 2012! Suffice to say that no man in Mangochi ever met such fate. And more recently, the gruesome experiences of rape that the women of Msundwe faced have just been, no doubt, life-shattering.
A small intermission here. I lived in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2019-early 2020. One of my treasured experiences as a woman there was the guarantee of safety and security in whatever public place I was. For the first time in many years, I let my guard down knowing that no one would harm me simply because I was a woman walking on the street. I was not groped, not even catcalled or hollered at, a temporary relief that I was robbed of once I landed back in Malawi. Here, I was swiftly reminded of how unsafe it is for women the moment I was catcalled a few minutes after leaving the safety of the gate of my home.
It becomes apparent in a woman’s life that our societies are never really tailored to protect me, but rather exploit, abuse and overlook my existence as a human of value. So much effort is invested, however, into excusing every other person who causes me physical or even mental harm. As a black African woman, I must always live my guard constantly up because I fully understand that if I were to be abducted, stripped off of my clothes, harassed and violated, society, the justice system and all the powers that be are modeled to find the faintest excuse to blame me for it.
In a thesis aptly titled “Private Bodies, Public Space; How Women Navigate Violence in Gendered Spaces in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” Kinita Shenoy confirms these experiences to shed light on how, as in the case of Sri Lankan women, we could further understand how Malawian women negotiate our right to our bodies and its privacy, or lack thereof. Ms. Shenoy discusses the gendered nature of the public space, detailing how our streets are not designed to cater to women and certainly not to protect women. She identifies three aspects necessary in understanding women’s public experience. The physical aspect includes women’s experience with various forms of violence and infrastructural barriers to women’s access to public buildings and movement, contravening Article 8 of the Maputo Protocol, which states “the establishment of adequate educational and other appropriate structures with particular attention to women and to sensitize everyone to the rights of women, including provision of spaces for breastfeeding mothers, appropriate disposal facilities for sanitary materials, running water in public bathrooms, wheel chair ramps, adequate street lighting among others.”
The second is the social aspect, which includes the imposition of social and cultural norms such as dress codes that influence the restrictions placed on women in the public space. And finally, she discusses the mental aspect, which includes the risk assessment and negotiation women have to go through in order to be in the public space before and after leaving the safety of our homes.
So, navigating the Malawian public space should not always be a decision between safety and accomplishment of one’s daily interests, just because one’s “sin” is being born with a vagina, a risk that heightens for Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people, women living with albinism or women living with disability. It’s time we talked openly about how Malawian women survive the public space.
For women, picking up a Chitenje should not always be the common denominator of every trip that takes one outside the comforts of their homes. Life needs to transcend the self-questioning that we must always go through: Is my skirt, dress or trousers too tight or short? Can I walk there or will I need to use a Kabaza- Bicycle taxi or a bus? And because of economic inequality, which renders women poorer than men, the option to drive or hire a vehicle is out of the question.
We need to anchor ourselves in the 21st Century in earnest, with better living conditions for all people as our constitution asserts. Our daughters need not grow up in fear in a society they call their own, where the first public survival skill is “look left, right, then left again when crossing the road”; the second, for teenage girls, being “do not talk to men on the road, do not wear short skirts and be home before sunset”; and the third, in adulthood, is “walk as fast as you can in public, maybe purchase some earphones, carry with you a Chitenje, have a set of keys and perhaps some pepper spray too.”