As Malawi commemorates International Women’s Day this week, under the theme ‘A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women’ the focus is on ending gender-based violence. Reducing harmful cultural practices and keeping girls in school could help safeguard women’s rights. James Chavula writes.
In the northern Malawi district of Thyolo, one village prides itself as “an island in tea estates”. Take a journey through the sprawling plantations, the village will tell you theirs is a haven of dying gender-based violence against women.
Unlike most Malawians, their perception of women abuse does not stop at the unjust beatings, hackings and expulsions at the hands of their partners. This evokes memories of incarcerated Dowa man Herbert Mankhwala chopping the arms of his wife Marietta Samuel in a highly publicised scene that persuaded Parliament to pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act in 2005.
To people of Mbeluko Village, gender-related violence includes vestiges of harmful cultural practices and sexual exploitation that leave women and girls with shattered dreams, unwanted pregnancies, low-esteem as well as HIV and Aids.
“The tea estates might be a source of income for most of us, but they cast a shadow over our community. Illiteracy is high, and so are cases of harmful sex that usually leave women and girls in trouble,” says group village head Mbeluko.
Harmful cultural practices
While it is easy to blame the tea estates for fuelling both premarital and extra-marital sex, the Thyolo North locality is home to cultural practices that subject women to exploitative intercourse. This includes kulowa kufa, which compels women to have sex with appointed men to get rid of a shadow of their husband’s death, and kusasa fumbi which requires teenage girls to sleep with older men to mark their transition into puberty.
While many think kusasa fumbi (getting rid of dust) is dead and buried, Violet Julius, 21, confesses undergoing the dangerous rite in 2009 and says she was lucky to get out of it without HIV and Aids.
“As an adolescent, nankungwi (a counsellor) told me to go and show that I was old enough, that I was no longer afraid of men. The elders kept pestering me that I was not a child anymore, so I ended up having unprotected sex with a man who left me pregnant,” says Julius, who quit school in Standard Eight at Mbandanga Primary School in the area.
The woman disclosed that the unwanted pregnancy did not only leave her with a bleak future but also guilt, regrets and low self-esteem. Unfortunately, she says, the search for companionship landed her in the hands of a marriage with a man who fathered her second child.
Numerous studies indicate early pregnancies and marriages are the reason most girls drop out of school.
Second chance to girls
With this realisation, government in 2009 introduced a policy which encourages girls to go back to school after giving birth. For Julius, her return to school started with encounters with her fellow dropout Mwandiliza Sunzinyo, 21.
Sunzinyo, who was elected secretary for a village discussion group called star circle last year, was found pregnant after sitting Junior Certificate examinations in 2009 at Mpinji Open Secondary School and she was readmitted, along with Rhoda Maganga and Linda Suta, in January. She reckons readmission is giving women a second chance in life and they cannot afford to let it slip through their fingers.
“Most women are abused because of illiteracy. You cannot stand up for your rights or occupy decision-making positions when you are illiterate. I am a living example. My colleagues elected me circle secretary because I went to school,” says Sunzinyo, whose group discusses developmental issues, including how to eradicate cultural practices, domestic violence, maternal mortality, sexual and reproductive health problems.
But cultural practices that militate against women are many—and under siege.
Whereas kuotcha uvuni translates as “burning bricks”, Mbeluko residents use the Chichewa phrase as a code-name for the believable excuses men give to cheat on their wives and girlfriends.
“Being a closely knit society, we usually help each other when it comes to tough tasks. Unfortunately, some take leave of their wives and girlfriends as if they are going to help their friends’ burn bricks when they are actually going to sleep with their secret sexual partners,” says Bright John.
At a time studies single out multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships as the major spreader of HIV and Aids, locals seem to know that sleeping around is more than just sexual violence.
“Some men get so obsessed with hidden affairs that they start abusing their stable partners. However, the major tragedy comes when the cheat acquires sexually transmitted infections or HIV from a secret lover. He may end up infecting the unsuspecting wife or girlfriend,” says John.
The infection chain lengthens and swells until it forms what Pakachere Institute for Health and Development Communication executive director Simon Sikwese likens to a spider’s web.
Confronting the undercurrents
An agreement is emerging among the villages that harmful practices that fuel gender-based violence and the pandemic must be restyled or modified.
Fortunately, traditional leaders are walking hand-in-hand with villagers to get rid of the harmful undercurrent—thanks to community discussion groups spearheaded by Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation last year.
“The star circles have spread from one village to another because they put men and women, leaders and their subjects at an equal footing to discuss things affecting them, exploring their solutions and their role. This way we know we are able to link harmful cultural practices to women’s rights. Together, we single out unwanted practices from beneficial ones,” says Sunzinyo.
Both the national gender policy and the HIV and Aids cite traditional leaders as key to ending cultural rights that often impinge on women’s rights and expose them to the pandemic. The call to action against dangerous traditions also forms the backbone of the newly passed Gender Equality Bill.
We must make every day a women’s day—a call to walk the talk of creating a Malawi free from practices that water hidden abuses of women’s rights.