Written by Roseanna Anderson
On the eighth of March, 2016, women from an array of backgrounds: journalists, police women, farmers, peanut butter connoisseurs and business women as well as mothers and grandmothers from rural communities filled a plot of land on the outskirts of Nkhata Bay. We were celebrating International Women’s Day. As Progressio and Yoneco volunteers we rallied onto the pitch, our lurid green chitenjes proudly advertising the charity and the parity it stands for. Other women were uniform too, with countless chitenjes displaying a portrait of Arthur Peter Mthalika (the current Malawian president) beside images of maize- the country’s staple source of carbohydrates.
While the female presence was overwhelming, it was incredibly reassuring to see such a high volume of men too; often it can be perceived that feminist issues exclude men and boys. The #HeForShe campaign is evidently having an impact here as young photographers paraded the hash tag on t-shirts and a section of the speech recognised the importance of equal participation and responsibility to achieve equality of the sexes as well as stressing the need to focus on boy’s education.
2016 saw International Women’s Day with a local goal: to ‘call, commit and act for parity’. In the past it seems social action has been somewhat unsatisfying and while the country is seeing gender restraints loosened there are still visible effects of the deep running matriarchy that dominates the nation. For example, of all the chiefs of all the tribes gathered for the event, only two were female amongst a crowd of men. Patricia Kaliati –an MP and Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare- spoke of the sad statistic that one in three women are subject to gender based violence and 27% of Secondary School girls have experienced some form of sexual harassment by people close to them. The need to focus on keeping young girls in schools and out of early or forced marriages was reiterated, highlighting how half of the population being lowly educated not only decimates any attempt at the future’s equality but also hinders the economy. Ms Kaliati proceeded to place emphasis on individual action for men and women; she called for a collective movement towards a stronger, most just society.
Having drawn attention to some uninspiring figures, the ceremony continued with a parade of female accomplishments. From police women to MP’s, each individual had a narration of their successes. This served to remind how far Malawi has come towards gender parity and that individual bravery to act against gender norms can aid to diminish inequality. A round of enthusiastic applause and celebration followed each story as the women circled the field, energising the crowd before the music ensued. And of course, being in Africa, more and more people broke into dance.
A group of male traditional dancers arrived dressed entirely in white with feathers decorating their headpieces. Next a body of women in vibrant chitenjes began to move in sync with the music. Seeing the joy that dancing had catalysed among the crowd was enough to encourage me, after much persuasion, to join in. The decision proved to be worthwhile because as soon as I began dancing the crowd let out a whooping cheer of appreciation. I even received personal thanks and handshakes from a few ladies beside me; they clearly appreciated my engagement in the dancing that is so fundamental to Malawian culture. It was an honour for me to be so welcomed in an entirely foreign ceremony.
|Minister of Gender Hon. Patricia Kaliati with the UNWomen and UNAIDS country rep launching the Gender Policy at Lukalazi in Nkhata Bay|
The day had filled me with enthusiasm and energy to continue pressing for equal treatment of everyone. It reminded me of how the feminist movement is evolving as the country adapts while it noticed the leaps that still need to be made. It was a celebration of the achievements of women and while the day was commendable and arguably imperative to change, I am hoping to see a future in which educated and professional women are no longer seen as anomalies. YONECO also shared the messages to the people who gathered at the function on programs conducted by the organisation which included life skills, sexual reproductive health rights education and issues of GBV and helpline services through 116 Toll Free Line.