By Gray Kalindekafe
The Gender Equality Act passed by the Government of Malawi in 2013 aims at taking action and addressing inequalities that exist between men and women in many aspects of life.
In the Act, there is emphasis on empowering girls and women as the inequality is tilted in favour of males over females.
The Act also seeks to promote equal integration, influence, empowerment, dignity and opportunities for men and women in all functions of society; to prohibit and provide redress for sex discrimination, harmful practices and sexual harassment and to provide public awareness on promotion of gender equality.
Among others, this piece of legislation states that it shall apply to all persons and to all matters.
This means it will apply to private and public institutions, including religious settings and traditional jurisdictions of chiefs. It will also apply to the government and affect all aspects of life in the country.
It echoes Section 13 of the Constitution that the State shall actively promote the welfare and development of the people of Malawi by progressively adopting and implementing policies and legislation aimed at achieving such matters as gender equality through the implementation of policies to address social issues such as domestic violence, security of the person, lack of maternity benefits, economic exploitation and rights to property.
Another important document that vouches for the realisation of gender equality is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
This development framework and its transformative vision declare the centrality of gender equality and empowerment of women for achieving sustainable development—with the elimination of violence against women as a crucial component.
It provides everyone with a unique global opportunity to promote change through the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls and all harmful practices.
Other related targets under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise women’s right to a sexual and reproductive life, free from violence, coercion and discrimination.
The SDG agenda confirms that such violence is a barrier to gender equality, women’s empowerment, and sustainable development and is an impediment to the achievement of other goals, including poverty eradication, health (inclusive of sexual and reproductive health), education, food security and just and peaceful societies.
As such, addressing violence against women and girls and harmful practices should constitute a cross-cutting issue in policies and programmes aimed at the achievement of the other goals.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development builds on existing international frameworks for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and the elimination of violence and harmful practices.
These include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention – perhaps the world’s most comprehensive international treaty on combating violence against women and domestic violence.
It explicitly states that violence against women is a human rights violation.
Continentally, the vision of Africa expressed in Agenda 2063 is one of an Africa whose development is people-driven, especially relying on the potential offered by its women and youth.
Under this vision, it is envisaged that there will be gender equality in all spheres of life and an engaged and empowered youth.
By 2063, all forms of violence and discrimination (social, economic, political) against women and girls would have been eliminated and women and girls would fully enjoy all their human rights.
This means an end to all harmful social practices and that all barriers to access to quality health and education for women and girls would be non-existent.
African woman would have equal economic rights, including rights to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register and manage a business.
Over 90 percent of rural women would have access to productive assets, including land, credit, inputs and financial services. The Africa of 2063 would see attainment of full gender parity.
It would see women occupy 50 percent of elected offices at State, regional and local bodies, and 50 percent of managerial positions in government and private sector would be occupied by women. The economic and political glass ceiling hindering women’s progress would finally have been broken.
At national level, policies such as the National Gender Policy and laws such as the Gender Equality Act, Marriage Divorce and Family Relations Act, Deceased Estates Act, amongst others are great initiatives that must be fully applied or enforced at all levels.
It is recognised that girls and women in Malawi encounter inequality due to discriminatory customary practices. Such harmful social norms must be eradicated to address gender biases.
Gender-based violence is a global health, human rights and development issue that transcends geography, class, culture, age, race and religion impacting every community on the globe. Violence against women and girls impedes efforts to reduce poverty.
The public health implications of GBV are overwhelming. It has been estimated that at least one in every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced in to sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
Violence is also recognised to be a more serious cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age than cancer, and greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
In the Bible, all violence is considered an offence against God and against humanity. Scripture is full of condemnations of violence – time and again violence is associated with wickedness and condemned as “detestable to the Lord” (Psalm 11, Proverbs 3 and 10).
In particular, violence against women is condemned. In Jewish law, rape was viewed as equivalent to murder (Deut 22:26), as was pressuring a woman physically or psychologically into sex.
The Bible recounts many stories of the horrific sexual abuse of women. In Old Testament narratives, rape is viewed as an “outrage” (nebalah) —a term which only occurs 13 times in the Old Testament and is reserved for extreme acts of violation against God and human beings, including the raping of Dinah, Tamar and the woman of Bethlehem.
God is on the side of the oppressed and abused (Psalm 56). The scriptures clearly express God’s desire for a dramatic transformation of society for those who are burdened, marginalised or unjustly treated.
Jesus refused to play by the rules of violence and power. This new revolution—modelled by Jesus himself—means that the powerful should give up their privilege to the vulnerable; the abuser should stop using violence against those powerless to resist, and the institution should stop ignoring the trauma of the abuse survivor.
The way of Jesus calls us to relationships of non-violence and peace. We are to resist using violence even in retaliation for violence used against us.
This does not mean a capitulation to the inevitability of violence, but the promise of a day when those who continue to pursue violence will be dealt with.
Equally, the Islamic religion strongly condemns domestic violence.
Islam’s position on domestic violence is drawn from the Qur’an, prophetic practice (sunnah), and historical and contemporary legal verdicts (fatwas).
The Qur’an and prophetic practice clearly illustrate the relationship between spouses.
The Qur’an says the relationship is based on tranquillity, unconditional love, tenderness, protection, encouragement, peace, kindness, comfort, justice and mercy.
Prophet Muhammad set direct examples of these ideals of a marital relationship in his personal life.
There is no clearer prophetic saying about a husband’s responsibility toward his wife than his response when asked: Give her food when you take food, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face and do not beat her.
Muhammad further stressed the importance of kindness toward women in his farewell pilgrimage. He equated the violation of their marital rights to a breach of the couple’s covenant with God.
Abusive behaviour towards a woman is also forbidden because it contradicts the objectives of Islamic jurisprudence – specifically the preservation of life and reason, and the Qur’anic injunctions of righteousness and kind treatment.
Domestic violence is addressed under the concept of harm (darar) in Islamic law. It includes a husband’s failure to provide obligatory financial support (nafaqa) for his wife, a long absence of the husband from home, the husband’s inability to fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, or any mistreatment of the wife’s family members.
When Allah mentions marriage or the relationship between husband and wife in the Qur’an, He describes it as one of love, mercy and harmony between two human beings who have entered into a mutual contract.
Men are stakeholders in the achievement of gender equality.
In order to sustain change in eradicating gender-based violence, the root causes must be identified and challenged.
The gender perspective on violence shows that the root causes lie in unequal power relations between men and women, which ensure male dominance over women.
Emphasis of primary prevention efforts must therefore strive to erase underlying attitudes and behaviours that cause the violence including patriarchy, low women’s status, rigid gender roles and imbalance of power in intimate relationships.
*The author is a governance and civic education expert writing in his personal capacity