Growing up in Mzuzu City, people would refer to my father and my siblings as “Kayuni and Sons”—a common tagline seen on shops in Malawi.
Except, my father did not have any sons. We were all daughters. Wherever the other fathers took their sons, my father took my sisters and I—to the bank, the farm, business errands and, of course, arts festivals. He drilled into us that we could do whatever boys could.
The fond memories keep me going today. Whenever I succeeded, my short father would tell me, “You make me taller.”
I remember entering secondary school far away from home.
“I am proud of you,” my father wrote me when I represented my school in the prestigious “Top of The Class quiz broadcast nationwide on the State-owned radio station.. “When you come home, you will find me taller.”
Of course, countless girls across the globe grow up hearing – and seeing – otherwise.
At home, their parents may have unequal responsibility for household chores or imbalanced bargaining power in financial decisions.
In schools, girls may receive less support than their male classmates to learn and build skills critical for desirable or well-paying careers.
And even at the highest levels of society, gender norms can harden into regulations that perpetuate inequality, like laws that prohibit women from inheriting property.
In every society, gender norms sometimes turn violent. About a third of women and girls worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In Malawi, one in five girls experience sexual violence, two experience physical violence and one suffers emotional violence.
Concerted global effort is needed to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.
I’m proud to be a part of the Spotlight Initiative, the world’s largest effort to end GBV. Unicef, together with our sister UN agencies—UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women and the European Union—responds to all forms of violence to uproot them.
Parents and caregivers play an important role in shaping our norms, beliefs and identities. Only by working with parents—especially fathers—alongside educators and young people can we begin to prevent violence before it starts.
Unicef and the Spotlight Initiative focus on creating a protective environment, addressing social norms and empowering the most vulnerable with personal protection strategies.
My own upbringing showed me that parents and educators need to sing from the same song sheet when it comes to protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation.
Otherwise, children will hear one thing at school and another at home.
Still, it’s not enough to root out the harmful norms that breed violence—it is critical that we also have robust systems that can respond to cases.
Having served as a public prosecutor for some years before joining UN Children’s Fund, I worked with the criminal justice system to respond to rights violations, especially against women and girls.
Even today, I spend my weekends, evenings and leave time on pro bono cases. This has helped keep my contributions to Unicef programme planning grounded in the realities of life in Malawi.
I see every day how women and girls, especially those in rural areas, struggle to pursue justice. The barriers stack up: Hidden costs, like the cost of transport to the courts to file a case, or the cost to get a national identity card, cut women off from justice systems.
In a society where family finances are controlled mostly by men, this imbalance has a devastating toll.
So, when I work with my colleagues on designing and implementing programmes under the Spotlight Initiative, we bring an intimate knowledge of the response gaps.
For example, we have installed mobile courts that go to the people, rather than forcing women and girls to find them.
We have supported the waiver of court fees and provided transportation for the police to respond more quickly.
And Unicef in Malawi has appointed an experienced gender specialist to make all our work gender-responsive and transformative in the areas that most closely impact girls’ quality of life: safety and protection, clean water, proper sanitation, nutritious foods, good health care and more.
My father taught me to stand up for the vulnerable and the voiceless regardless of societal norms. The Spotlight Initiative has brought to the fore how important it is that we invest in prevention and response, to address the heart of systematic power issues preventing women and girls from accessing the services they need and from pursuing the opportunities they deserve.
I am proud to be involved in this work. I know my father certainly agrees. It makes him taller.—Unicef