According to a recent study, one out of five Malawian women have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18.
Violence against women is a global phenomenon that has recently gained attention through the viral Facebook and Twitter campaign, ‘#metoo’, designed to raise awareness to the ubiquity of sexual harassment or sexual assault experienced by women across all walks of life.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a Malawian friend about why #metoo has not taken off in Malawi given the statistics on sexual assault and harassment in the country. She opined that the #metoo movement would not work here because the Malawian society is too small and interconnected.
For example, if a woman reported that a male colleague or friend sexually harassed her, she might be implicating the husband of a friend or the brother of an acquaintance. This would lead to a backlash not only from the accused but also from the women and men around him. “Are you trying to say my husband touched you?” “Why would my brother do that? You are a liar.” She lamented that the social cost of reporting sexual harassment and violence would be too high.
I agree that the cost for women in this particular cultural context would be too high. However, this is why we need both men and other women to share the costs with these victims. In order to stem the tide of sexual violence in Malawi, men and women need to work together to hold the perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment accountable regardless of their status.
As a man, I have male privilege. Male privilege means that solely on the basis of my sex, I have certain advantages in society that my female counterparts do not. For example, I exist comfortably in both the public and the workplace without being worried about sexual harassment. I can walk alone at night without the fear of being raped or sexually assaulted. These are advantages I have solely because I was born male. It is from this place of privilege that we as men must advocate for women in Malawi.
For men like myself, it means using our male privilege to speak out and, if need be, take action against other men who we see actively harming women. Nonetheless, despite the high social costs for victims, women still have a role in combating sexual harassment and violence. For women, it means supporting fellow women and not allowing themselves to become enablers for male perpetrators of violence.
Recently, I was at a social event where I had to both verbally and physically intervene on behalf of a female friend who was the recipient of unwanted male attention. Later on I had a discussion with another female friend who was friends with the man whose sexual advances I had to repel. She explained to me that the man was harmless and that there may have been cultural differences that caused him to misread signs. Fear looks the same in every culture. It is time that we stop making excuses for men and their problematic behavior. If these men are blind to how their own actions are damaging to the women around them, then we need to be the ones to hold a mirror up to them and show them that this behaviour is unacceptable.
It is the women and men who make excuses for their uncles, cousins, brothers and friends that lead to environments where the chorus of voices who have #metoo moments are silenced for fear of social backlash. My desire is to have a generation of women whose testimonies do not include victimisation on the basis of their sex.
That can only happen when men like myself intervene both verbally and physically when we see harassment or assault and when women like my friend look pass the distorted goggles of familiarity and see the behaviour of men that they call friends, lovers and relatives as what it truly is: violence. The social cost of reporting harassment and assault for women in a place like Malawi is too expensive, lets not make them pay it alone. n