The world today needs to take stock of what has been achieved in the promotion of women’s rights and their participation in political, social, and economic spheres in the past 41 years. This stock taking exercise being proposed here begins in 1977, the year in which United Nations General Assembly invited member states to declare 8 March as the UN Day for Women’s rights.
The question we need to ask ourselves is on whether as an individual, Civil Society Organization (CSO), and governments have really contributed towards attainment and realization of women’s rights at various levels. This is a battle that started long time ago even before the actual International Women's Day (IWD) was proclaimed by the UN and its member states.
Narrowing this issue to Malawi as a country, I can see a commendable progress. There are some areas we have tremendously done well while some aspects still need to be accentuated. It may not be fair to use a relative measure in terms of finding out how Malawi has performed in terms of promoting women’s rights and welfare. Malawi and many other southern African countries had serious challenges that emanated from deep rooted patriarchal tendencies that were inherited from the ‘ancestors’. Thus, comparing where we are coming from and what we have done so far is a clear indication that with effort and sustenance of the current momentum, we will achieve!
According to the current Malawi Demographic Health Survey (MDHS), the country has an average of 4.4 children. This is a decrease from 6.7 children per women in 1992. This represents a dramatic decline of 2.3 children and translates to improved health and welfare of women in the country. Further to this, the enactment of the Gender Equality Act, Marriage Divorce and Family Relations Act as well as other gender-related laws really prove how serious Malawi is in its efforts of trying to achieve gender equality. Malawi once had a female president who was voted as a presidential running-mate and became president after the death of the then incumbent President, the late Bingu Wa Muthalika. Let us also note the progress in terms of university selection at the University of Malawi whereby the 2015/2016 intake shows that a total of 1,919 students were selected to pursue various courses. This is a move away from the time when a very few females had a chance to reach secondary school.
CSOs in Malawi also deserve a pat on the back for raising awareness about women’s rights, women empowerment initiatives, spearheading the war against Gender Based Violence (GBV) and many other commendable efforts. CSO should really be applauded - ‘Ending GBV starts with reporting GBV’ and YONECO’s toll-free Gender Based Crisis Line is there to fill this gap. It helps to ensure that women have a confidential alternative reporting mechanism. Further to this, the line is a source of information as well as a tool where women access psychosocial counselling on GBV. GBV awareness campaigns that have been conducted across the country have contributed to increased understanding of women’s rights so much that women are now able to voice out their rights.
Despite the numerous milestones, there is also a need to acknowledge that GBV is still prevalent in the country and in 2014 USAID included Malawi as one of 35 GBV priority countries due to the high rates of child marriage in the country. Women’s participation in decision making processes is still a challenge and the country is still grappling with the problem of child marriage.
This year, the World is commemorating the #IWD under the theme; Time is Now, Urban and Rural Activists Transforming Women’s Lives. This theme befits the current efforts in women empowerment programme by various players.
The International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. Let us further remember that the fight for women’s rights is not a once off activity and let the fight continue after the commemoration.
Further to this, women should be given more spaces. Sometimes we may feel we are making positive strides while we are creating new problems. For instance, we can increase the number of women in politics but then their meaningful participation is the democratic processes could be limited. This is why there is a need to understand that it is more than just the figures.
This is your day: women, how are you today?