The room was abuzz and women of all ages, from all walks of Malawian life, flooded in through the doors. A momentous occasion was here at long last. Not just any ordinary women’s convention, to weep about our dire situation, but one that would develop a concrete women’s manifesto. A manifesto which would express the interests of Malawian women. Not dictated by a man. Not decided by parliamentarians. But one designed for her, by her.
It is no secret that women are often marginalized in decision making in many public spheres, to the extent that we are often not even involved in decisions that affect us directly. This leaves us susceptible to conditions informed by patriarchal ideals and values that disadvantage us in many ways. Only to perpetuate our oppression. It is against this background that the women’s assembly will serve as such a vital moment in the discourse of women’s rights and position in Malawi.
On this day, no one would speak for another. Every woman’s voice carried weight. The primary school teacher from rural Dowa, the young budding college activist, the nurse who witnesses the daunting conditions expectant mothers endure in an attempt to access safe health care.
Every. Woman. Mattered.
As soon as all the participants were seated and a wave of silence floated across the room, I could not help but look around in awe. Today, I would take a step back from Crenshaw’s theories of intersectionality and witness them in life form. Today, I was going to see a mother demand solutions to issues that affect her life not only as a mother, but as a voter, a farmer, and as an individual whose life revolves around a plethora of many cross-cutting components. Gathered in that room, we were going to dissect the issues that affect us and make demands for the betterment of our well-being.
The congregation was a diverse crowd, but only diverse enough to agree on two commonalities. That everyone in that large expanse of a room was female. And that each one of us was fed up with the status quo and ready to demand change. No more crying, no more complaining – only justified to claim what is ours. On 5th November 2018, seated in that hall at Bingu International Convention Centre, we meant business. We were there to make concrete demands. At the back of our minds we remembered that there can be nothing for us without us.
We discussed several themes common to our suffrage, our marginalization and our discrimination, discoursing over health, education, political participation, access to justice, culture, and much, much more. Each group’s discussion was as compelling as the next. Issues were thoroughly addressed. Concrete and decisive solutions were agreed upon. All for women.
I heard firsthand accounts of obstacles deliberately put in place to stop female political aspirants from excelling. I heard a mother’s tales of the shattering consequences of her fourteen-year-old dropping out of school as a result of a pregnancy, who would then be forced into marriage with an older man who, to everyone’s best guess, had taken advantage of her. I heard a teacher speak of the struggles her students face when menstruating, because they must sit on the floor. Her classroom has no chairs nor desks to provide comfort. Just a bare, cold floor.
Even more, these women boldly demanded a conducive environment for women in politics. They demanded stringent punishment for abusive teachers when they violate the innocence of young girls, and that infrastructure in public schools be improved so that girls can learn effectively. They demanded it all…with a sense of urgency.
As a feminist, a young advocate for women’s rights and a firm believer in human rights, this moment was indescribable. To see women in my own country speak so passionately about their rights and a claim to an equal share of the pie, in whatever scenario one would fathom, was nothing short of amazing. To imagine why one must witness a collective of women seeking a safe space where we would be free to speak of the abhorrent condition patriarchy has left us in was appaling.
However, what is impressive is that, despite these conditions, women’s resolve at the Women’s Assembly assures all of us that we are not stopping here. We did not allow our troubles to define our future. There was no Hilary Clinton to fire us up with sweeping statements that “women’s rights are human rights,” or that “gender equality is smart economics,” or references to normative instruments that remain glued in ink to paper. We sat, stood and wandered around that expansive room to draw out our demands, regardless, fueled by the passion that had lit up the room that historic day.
This is not to say that I was moved by these stories because it was my first time hearing them. These are things I have amply researched about and heard accounts of. But the passion with which these women told these stories was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Women’s rights are enshrined in the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. There are also several acts of parliament which serve to protect and empower women. Numerous international instruments have also been ratified to promote and protect women’s rights in Malawi. But this Women’s Manifesto is unique in that it will be developed solely on demands made by the women themselves. After all, who knows what’s best for us better than ourselves? Be it matters of agriculture, justice, or education, we nailed every detail of it. We have spoken of what is true to us, and I believe that this is the only way we will achieve a desired outcome, unapologetically.
For young women such as myself, this is proof that we do not have to conform to patriarchy’s norms. We are capable of creating spaces of our own. If we are excluded from the discussion at the table, we will simply pack up our belongings and set up a table of our own. Unapologetically. We will use every means possible to ensure that our interests are heard and our well-being is taken catered to.
As we sit back and wait for the Women’s Manifesto to come out, it is my hope that it inspires the whole nation. When it officially comes into existence, I hope it acts as a blueprint for solutions to the plight of Malawian women. Our own Beijing Platform for Action, born and bred for the Malawian woman and girl. The future looks bright, as it is no secret that no country can truly be free until all its men and women are free.