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Mirror image of harmful traditions

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One of many numbing questions in gender studies has kept me iced up in a deluge of bewilderment.

Who benefits from cultural norms?

From my room’s window after the just-ended phone call, I can see only dreamily a bird singing on a rooftop of the adjacent building, thrusting its head skyward, trying to catch an insect flying around.

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According to UNFP, “society could not function without cultural norms that assist in governing behaviour and values and culture could not exist without societal influences to create it. They must coexist in order for humans to exist in an organised manner.”

But, for sure, some cultures promote not only sexual exploitation but skewed power relations between genders.

Unfortunately, too often, cultural dimensions of gender-based aggression against particularly females are at best weakly reflected in programme design or at worst treated superficially or even overlooked altogether.

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This is true for almost all communities on every continent. Despite this truth, in many parts of the globe, women still face multiple forms of discrimination and remain undervalued and underutilised, violated and aggressed against.

Ruth Makwakwa, 49, of Singa Village, Group Village Head Chitete Jere in Traditional Authority Nzukunzuku, Mzimba begins.

“My husband from Malaluka Mvuma Village in Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa [in Nzimba] died on November 27, 1997. Per tradition, therefore, I had to undergo uchokolo cultural practice,” she says.

Uchokolo, according to Makwakwa, is a cultural practice among the Ngoni of Mzimba which bereaved women must go through from the time the husband has died, all through the vigil, burial to the end of the mourning period.

“He died at around 8 am, and soon he departed this life, some elderly women in the village came. That was the beginning of my experience of the cultural practice meant to pacify the spirit of my deceased loved one.

“First, I was told to kneel down hands folded behind and bow over the body until my relatives turned up. My relatives arrived at about 5 pm,” she says.

Makwakwa says the following morning, after burial of her loved husband, she was instructed to wear a ragged chitenje (wrapper) which she covered herself with during sleep. While confirming that sleep was just but fitful, she says for almost a month-long mourning period she was using the chitenje as she slept on a sack under the watchful eye of the elderly women; guarding patriarchal interests.

“All this time day after day in the crack of dawn – 4 am, I was woken up and taken to a nearby crossroad. When there, I had to yell the words muyeni wane (my husband) while facing the graveyard where my husband was buried. I was told to keep on shouting until I saw any animal coming from the graveyard’s direction,” she says.

Makwakwa says she at all times lied that she had seen some animal such as a lizard, tortoise, wild cat and so forth coming so that she should be released to go back home.

“On the last day of mourning, I walked hands folded behind a 25-kilometre distance from Malaluka Mvuma Village to Singa Village. At home, I found a couple of men queued. I hugged all them, marked a line of ashes on their backs and gave them thobwa (sweet beer) to drink.

“I still experience constant backaches since then and I’m not the only one who has gone through this. Many a woman in our area has paid a goat fine for refusing to undergo uchokolo,” she says.

Is uchokolo still practised in the area?

Makwakwa says: “Yes, it is. That’s why I have decided to speak about it. That’s why I decided to share my experience with members of our radio listening club.”

Finias Jere, Vice-Secretary of Chigoma Listening Club in the area, concurs with Makwakwa.

“Of course, the elders would tell us that they abandoned the custom but they secretly do it. As a club in conjuction with church members we are trying hard to sensitise communities to the dangers of the tradition but the catchment area is too vast to monitor,” he says.

Chisomo Listening Club is run under UNDP-funded programme implemented by Development Communications Trust.

Village Head Chimimba Nkhoma in the area says the tradition is on its deathbed if at all it is practised these days and he attributes the dying of the culture to awareness campaigns carried out by different agencies.

One of the principles of the Constitution of Malawi is that all people are equal before law as provided for in Section 12. This means that the law recognises both men and women as being equal in terms of rights and freedoms which they can enjoy as human beings.

According to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, domestic violence is defined as any form of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, economic or financial abuse committed by a person against another person within a domestic relationship.

And the Gender Equality Act prohibits harmful practices – be it social, cultural or religious on account of sex, gender or marital status – which do or likely to undermine the dignity, health or liberty of any person or result in physical, sexual, emotional or psychological harm to any person.

But gender-based violence (GBV), including domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking and harmful practices such as what Makwakwa went through as well as forced child marriage and female genital mutilation and sexual cleansing is still endemic in Malawi despite the existence of such legislations, administrative directives, judicial sanctions and awareness-raising efforts by a variety of agencies and the government.

The reality in fact is grim.

Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare Principal Secretary Mary Shawa makes it clear.

“In 2014, the ministry conducted a study on gender-based violence. Among other findings, the study showed that in the country one in every five girls and one in every seven boys of the age of below 18 are sexually abused, one in every four girls and one in every five boys of the age of below 18 are mentally abused and one in every two girls and two in every three boys are physically abused,” Shawa says.

She says 74.4 girls and 58.4 percent of boys of the age of below 18 suffer multiple abuses. Again, 44.4 percent of abused boys of the age of below 18 end up abusing their intimates while 22.2 percent of abused girls of the age of below 18 abuse their intimates, she says.

“Gender-based violence is epidemic,” she says, adding: “It is time for every person to start doing something to end the scourge of violence against women and girls in their homes and communities.”

This means worldwide over a billion women and girls of all ages are affected by GBV.

UNDP specifies that “in every country, in every city or village, in conflict zones and refugee camps, in health pandemics like HIV and humanitarian crisis due to cyclones or earthquakes, one out of three women are beaten, abused, stalked, assaulted, tortured, raped, trafficked and sexually exploited, coerced into slavery or becoming drug mules, so-called honour killed, burnt alive for dowry and sold or forced into child marriage.”

Harmful traditions, customs and cultural norms, gender stereotypes and inequality and patriarchal political, economic and social structures manifest themselves in this most egregious violation of women’s human rights.

This in turn creates and perpetuates an environment of impunity for perpetrators.

But gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average $95 billion a year, peaking at $105 billion in 2014 – or six percent of the region’s gross domestic product – jeopardising the continent’s efforts for inclusive human development and economic growth, according to UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2016.

Realising this, government has passed laws and strategies which aim to promote gender equality, Shawa says.

Ministry of Gender, she says, launched a National GBV Action Plan on November 25, which also marked the start of the 2016 16 days of Activism against GBV. The plan, among others, outlines instruments to be used to protect human rights of women and girls.

She says government has also established 17 one-stop centres across the country and four are underway to enhance awareness on the ills of GBV. The centres also provide medical, social support and counselling services to victims of GBV.

Again, government has created 250 police victim support units and 300 community victim support units in the country which not only offer social support and counselling services but help popularise GBV matters, according to Shawa.

Ministry of Gender Principal Gender Officer responsible for GBV Justin Hamela admits that GBV manifests in various ways such as cultural practices and adds that the ministry has engaged traditional leaders who develop bylaws that outlaw harmful cultural traditions.

He says traditional leaders are key to the ending of GBV because they are in full control in monitoring situations in their communities.

The 16 days of Activism against GBV is an international campaign that was launched in 1991 to raise awareness on the extent of gender-related violence and attract policies and action to end such violence among societies in Malawi.

The 2016 campaign started on November 25 and ends tomorrow – which also happens to be International Human Rights Day.

But Makwakwa is the mirror image of the sense of vulnerability, fear, shame and helplessness felt by women and girls who are victims and survivors of GBV.

Let us join together to say: enough is enough!

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