The subservient position of the female is perhaps no more clear, than in Malawi. It is obvious, simply from the walking distance of a mother, heavily laden with children and goods, several yards behind her empty handed husband, where her place in society is.
In a country with over 85 percent of the population living as rural subsistence farmers, the role of most women is simply that as wife, mother, labourer and provider. Malawi still has among the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the world.
Despite there being no law against witchcraft, and in fact a law against accusing someone of the act, a recent report highlighted dozens of women being sent to prison for up to six years on conviction of witchcraft. That an appointed judge would convict for such a crime, which does not exist under the eyes of the law, clearly demonstrates substantial barriers to gender equality.
Women’s representation in national parliament is at 22 percent, in line with higher national averages, however, the investiture of Joyce Banda as the nation’s first female vice-president shows a sign for optimism. A life-long activist for women’s rights, her previous positions as Minister for Gender, Children's Affairs and Community Services and also, Minister of Foreign Affairs, provides her with the tools to develop a politically, and potentially internationally, backed approach to improvements in gender equality.
A government run, top down approach is of limited appeal. Existing Human Rights or Equality NGOs, such as Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Educational Trust and the Gender Coordination Network (NGO GCN) have extensive practical and policy experience from executive to ground level, and government support is best placed here, where it can be the most potent.
By implementing new laws and government polices and supporting these organisations, the message is ultimately reinforced through local initiatives, such as improved healthcare and training, educational and micro-financing projects, aimed specifically at women. By asserting women’s rights within their own communities, only then can broader national perceptions be broken down.
The empowerment of the female population has extra urgency, with Madame Banda potentially running for president in 2014, the more women at the polling booth, the better her chances.
Banda, M. 2010. VP Laughs off Peter Mutharika Campaign. In: The Nation. 02 August 2010. Available from: http://www.nationmw.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3527:vp-laughs-off-peter-mutharika-campaign&catid=1:national-news&Itemid=3
BBC News Africa. 2010. Malawi plea to free convicted “witches”. 13 October 2010. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11535155
NGO GCN and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway. Support to Gender Coordination Network, Phase Two. Available from: http://www.norway.mw/PageFiles/335524/NGO_GCN.pdf
Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Educational Trust. Women’s Rights and HIV/AIDs in Malawi and Southern Africa. Available from: http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/cwse/UserFiles/File/Women'sRightsHIVCourse.pdf
WHO. 2010. Maternal Deaths Worldwide Drop by a Third. 15 September 2010. Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2010/maternal_mortality_20100915/en/index.html