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25 years of activism: so much to do here

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It is now 25 years since Malawi started observing the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign. As CHACHACHA MUNTHALI writes, it has been a bittersweet period.

FROM the turmoil of fighting against one-party dictatorship to the political tranquillity of multiparty democracy, Malawi has passed through so much in the last 25 years.

Since 1991, the country has had five presidents, one of whom was female, Joyce Banda, who served briefly but she was a trailblazer of sorts.

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An enduring legacy of the Banda presidency between 2012 and 2014 was that it helped to cast the spotlight firmly on gender-based violence (GBV) after she passionately articulated tales of an abusive relationship she had endured early in her life.

Her ordeals in the relationship and her redemption from it resonated with the national as well as global narrative on GBV and how it has wrecked individuals and thrown societies into disarray.

Tentative progress has been made since 1991 – 25 years ago – when Malawi expressed its commitment to tackling GBV after it signed up to the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign.

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The campaign is an international initiative that originated from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute coordinated by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. The campaign, commemorated annually towards the end of the year, aims at raising awareness about all forms of gender and galvanising action to end violence against women and girls around the world.

In the 25 years since, several dreadful incidents have helped to illuminate the task facing the nation before GBV can be consigned to the history books. And none illustrates this sad state of affairs better than the case of Herbert Mankhwala who, consumed by jealousy and in a fit of rage, amputated the arms of his wife, Marietta Samuel, in 2006 in Dowa.

Makhwala was imprisoned for 14 years (now since released) which was little consolation for his recklessness but his actions helped to raise awareness about the spectre of violence that women face on a daily basis.

Such incidents, however, also cast a heavy cloud on Malawi’s aspirations of achieving women empowerment after 25 concerted years of activism against GBV. Is Malawi chasing a lost cause or is there light at the end of the tunnel?

UN Resident Representative Mia Seppo observes that Malawi has made significant strides in fighting against GBV over the past decades on the legislative and policy front, even though challenges still remain as over 40 percent of women in Malawi experience violence.

“We are seeing a gradual decrease in reported incidents of economic violence such as property grabbing but physical, sexual and emotional violence remain a big challenge,” Seppo says.

But she warns that recent assessments indicate a 41 percent increase in the number of violence cases reported at police victim support units nationally between January and June 2016 compared to the same period last year, with about 98 percent of the victims being women and children.

“Between January and June 2016, the number of reported incidents of emotional violence (mostly GBV such as extramarital affairs, threats of violence and family abandonment) had already exceeded the total number of emotional violence cases reported nationally in the entire 2015,” she says.

Such a picture of doom and gloom is also supported by Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, who rattles off figures that are as shocking as they are indicative of the challenge facing the nation in the fight against GBV.

“We conducted a study from 2013 to 2014 to establish the magnitude of gender-based violence. We established that one in every five girls and one in every seven boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.

“One in every two girls and two in every three boys are physically abused before the age of 18. One in every four girls and one in every five boys are mentally abused before the age of 18.

“Further, 54.4 percent of boys compared to 54.8 percent of girls experience multiple abuse [a combination of physical, sexual and mental],” says Shawa.

More concerning, she adds, was the discovery that 44.4 percent of men and 22.2 percent of women who had been abused before the age 18 were likely to abuse their intimate partners.

“Violence is an epidemic because it is passed on from generation to another,” Shawa observes.

The government developed the National Gender-based Violence Prevention Plan – which was unveiled on November 26 during the launch of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against GBV – partly with the aim of breaking the chain of trans-generational violence.

Traditional leaders have also produced a framework of by-laws that would be used to implement laws that promote gender equality in their communities as part of the same plan.

The framework was tested and launched over the weekend in Karonga.

The laws have been translated into easy-to-read formats in Chichewa and Tumbuka, with the aim of reaching out to as many people as possible.

Laws such Gender Equality Act, Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, Deceased Estate, Wills, Inheritance and Protection Act and Trafficking in Persons Act should ensure that the rights of women are upheld but an oft-made observation has been that Malawi never lacks for laws to deal with various situations; its Achilles’ heel has always been implementation.

Seppo observes that Malawi needs to improve on implementation and enforcement of the laws which can have an impact on the levels of violence against women in the home, in communities as well as at national level if well known by the public and enforced.

“The UN has been supporting advocacy and awareness raising on these laws. These laws have been translated into local languages and, therefore, need to reach all corners of Malawian society. This needs joint work – the government, development partners including CSOs, traditional leaders, faith leaders and all other segments of society,” Seppo says.

But Shawa is optimistic Malawi can significantly change the face of GBV because of the initiatives the government has put in place. One such initiative has been the introduction of mobile legal clinics and the hiring of a lawyer to take up cases in courts.

Further, the government has established over 300 victim support units at community level and over 250 police victim support units, which in total register 15,000 cases of GBV annually.

“Between last year and this, about 50 percent of all gender-based violence cases were completed because we have a lawyer who is working hand in hand with the Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary,” Shawa says.

So much done; but what does the future hold for Malawi in the fight against GBV? Has sufficient awareness been made on the subject?

Thom Khanje, Chairperson of media watchdog, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Malawi), contends that the media, as a critical partner in the fight against GBV, has been key to increased awareness on and action against GBV.

“Most of the high-profile cases that have aroused public attention on gender-based violence were exposed by the media [the Mankhwala] case is a classic example. But the problem with the media is that it’s usually reactive. Rarely does it report gender-based violence issues outside incidences. The media needs to be proactive to help in prevention of such cases,” Khanje observes.

The United Nations’ (UN) theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence was ‘Orange the World: Raise Money to End Violence against Women and Girls’. The initiative, according to the UN, “provides a moment to bring the issue of sustainable financing for initiatives to prevent and end violence against women to global prominence and also presents the opportunity for resource mobilisation for the issue.”

But does donor-dependent Malawi have the capacity to continue raising awareness on GBV should it encounter funding challenges?

Seppo believes Malawi is well placed to continue conducting awareness campaigns against GBV because of the systems it has built over time.

“There are a number of players such as the police, the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development, the Ministry of Information, Parliament; the Judiciary, the media, local government structures, NGOs, community leaders and ordinary citizens, who possess a lot of capacity which, if fully utilised, can help change negative attitudes, behaviours and practices to eliminate violence against women and children in Malawi despite funding challenges,” observes Seppo.

Shawa strongly objects to reducing the fight against GBV to only 16 days towards the end of the year.

“Violence is happening every day and we can’t say we have done it in 16 days and then forget, no; we have to do it continuously,” says Shawa, further observing that the passage of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was a significant step in the fight against GBV.

Malawi may have achieved political tranquillity but the war against GBV rages on despite the many significant battles that have been won.

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