For decades, women and girls have cried without ceasing, pleading with the world to end sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) targeted at them.
Their wailing seems not to have been loud enough to persuade traditional, community and political leaders to stop patriarchal and cultural practices that have given women and girls lower status in society.
A 2021 report by UN Women shows that despite women’s increased engagement in public decision-making roles, equality is far off as they hold about 21 percent of ministerial positions globally.
Yolanda Ngwira, Councillor for Njuyu Ward in Mzimba District, laments the delay by the traditional, faith and political leaders to root out patriarchal and cultural practices that perpetuate gender imbalances in society.
She further says there was a rise in cases of violence, exploitation, abuse or harassment against women and girls during Covid crisis.
“The Covid outbreak worsened the situation for women and girls, especially in underprivileged communities, as predators took advantage of the preventive restrictions to perpetrate more abuses on them.
“We saw how toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the pandemic led to an exponential rise in cases of violence, exploitation, abuse or harassment against women and girls in our societies,” Ngwira narrates.
UN Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres says gender inequality is one of the biggest barriers to ending extreme poverty and hunger.
“Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread and devastating human rights violations globally.
“But Malawi cannot end violence against women and girls without a strong alliance involving local communities, government, civil society and development partners,” Torres says.
She stresses that responding to the pandemic is not just about rectifying long-standing inequalities, but also about building a resilient world in the interest of everyone, with women at the centre of recovery.
For Non-Governmental Organisations Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN), collaboration with female councillors and members of Parliament is critical in enhancing their capacity in fighting violence.
Through a programme dubbed Women Movement Amplify—which the European Union (EU) is financing through UN Women under the sixth pillar of the Spotlight Initiative Project—female politicians are being supported to address the occurrence of violence against women and girls within the Covid pandemic context.
NGO-GCN National Coordinator Joseph Njala says women deserve their spaces in public life and that the programme, which is being implemented in six spotlight districts and at national level, will effectively push for such freedom.
“We want female councillors and MPs to be at the core of interventions designed to challenge and change patriarchal and cultural practices that have tended to put girls and women at the periphery of everything in the society,” Njala says.
Minister of Gender Patricia Kaliati says SGBV cases increase during every type of emergency – whether economic crises, conflict or disease outbreaks.
Kaliati says, during the Covid pandemic, girls, especially those from marginalised communities and with disabilities, were particularly affected by the secondary impacts of the outbreak.
“The pandemic has underscored society’s reliance on women, both on the front line and at home, while simultaneously exposing structural inequalities across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection.
“In times of crisis, when resources are strained and institutional capacity is limited, women and girls face disproportionate impacts with far-reaching consequences,” she explains.
She adds that, in most households, economic stress due to the outbreak further put children, particularly girls, at greater risk of exploitation, child labour and GBV.
Ngwira concurs with Kaliati, saying the impact of the Covid crisis has been stark on women and girls.
But the councillor is optimistic that, with the introduction of interventions such as the Women Movement Amplify Programme, things could improve for the better.
She says the project is equipping them with skills to prevent and fight violence in their societies.
“Apart from putting us at the core of the fight against SGBV and the Covid pandemic, the project has empowered communities to stand up and challenge harmful cultural and patriarchal norms while cases, eliminating the blame, shame and stigma victims face,” Ngwira says.