Situation Of Women
The Situation of Women In Malawi: A WLSA Malawi Perspective
Although the 1995 Malawi Constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, in reality immense obstacles to equality perpetuate gender disparities in many aspects of life. Gender disparities exist in areas such as the law, education, agriculture, health, employment, credit accessibility, and political participation. These disparities produce gendered inequalities in the division of power, participation and control over resources and decision-making processes, so that Malawian women remain disadvantaged in the socio-economic, legal and political arenas of society. .
The causes for women’s unequal situation in Malawi are multi-faceted and include the following:
- Feminisation of Poverty
Poverty is a gendered phenomenon in Malawi in that more female-headed households constitute the poor. In order to deal with poverty in Malawi, the Government of Malawi has come up with The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) which is the overarching strategy for Malawi for the next five years, from 2006/07 to 2010/2011 fiscal years. The overriding philosophy of the MGDS is poverty reduction through sustainable economic growth and infrastructure development. The MGDS identifies six key priority areas which define the direction the country intends to take in the next five years to achieve economic growth and wealth creation which are critical for immediate improvement in the economic well-being of Malawians. These are: agriculture and food security; irrigation and water development; transport infrastructure development; energy generation and supply; integrated rural development; prevention and management of nutrition disorders, HIV and AIDS. These six key priority areas will accelerate the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), thereby recognizing the importance of sectors of health, education, gender, environment and governance. The MGDS in itself fails to directly deal with the intersection between poverty and gender inequality which has created the feminisation of poverty. The feminisation of poverty differentiates women’s experience of poverty significantly from men’s. Female-headed households are represented disproportionately in the lowest quarter of income distribution. In addition, female-headed households have more dependents, lower income earning capacity and fewer assets and other resources. The incidences of HIV and AIDS has greatly changed the meaning and structure of households as more women especially old women are left to look after orphaned children belonging to their deceased children. This even means poverty has increased to very high levels (WLSA Malawi; 2003). One of the salient features missing among women as the poor in Malawi is the ability to effectively participate as actors in their communities. Women lack knowledge about their rights therefore this diminishes their potential capabilities to become effective agents for change at the personal, household and community levels. Therefore women remain poor and observers of development rather than change agents.
- Violence against Women
Further to the above, violence against women is a significant problem in Malawi that is occurring in the home, community and the workplace. Women are particularly vulnerable to violence, including wife-battering, sexual harassment and assault, girl-child defilement, marital rape, incest, femicide, and widowhood rites. Sexual abuse also occurs within some traditional practices in Malawi. In some parts of Malawi, women are blamed if their unmarried daughters become pregnant. Severe cases in Rumphi and Karonga reported that pregnant girls were battered to death and their mothers assaulted. Sexual abuse in schools is a particularly significant problem with 27% of secondary school girls having experienced some form of sexual harassment by people close to them. Sexual exploitation of women is common with very young girls walking the street to sell their bodies for money and in the process having unwanted pregnancies. These women also face abuse (including rape) by the police. These various forms of gender-based violence significantly affect women’s health and have severe psychological impacts on women’s ability to participate in the social and economic activities of their community. Although legal measures exist in society that protect women and girls from some forms of violence, the existing discriminatory legal system often leaves women without adequate judicial recourse. Currently, Malawian law defines rape only outside the marital context and therefore exempts husbands for prosecution from this act. Despite some well-publicized cases of girl-child defilement, most assaults on women and girls go unreported and fewer still result in convictions.
Women’s experience of HIV/AIDS accentuates existing gender disparities and affects women’s role at home, work and in the community. The psychosocial and socioeconomic dimensions of HIV/AIDS are different for women than men because of women’s unequal status in society. Gender inequality is a key variable in the high incidence of HIV/AIDS transmission among women. According to UNAIDS; women and girls between the ages of 15-30 experience very high rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Malawi. In fact, the infection rate of women/girls is four to six times higher than that of men/boys in the same cohort. The factors that have contributed to the high infection rates in women/girls include the low socio-economic status of women in addition to various cultural practices that prevent women from negotiating safer sex. Vulnerability to HIV/AIDS is increased by a lack of respect for women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, including the right to information, education, freedom of expression, liberty and security, privacy, and freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment. Women’s subordinate position in Malawian society restricts the possibilities for women to take control of their lives to combat HIV/AIDS, leave a high-risk relationship or have adequate access to quality health care.
Although the Malawi Constitution provides for adequate health care, there is limited access to affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS and inadequate health care services. HIV/AIDS has presented an additional burden to women’s intensive working day, given that women and girls are usually the ones responsible to care for AIDS sick relatives and/or support orphaned children. Girls are disproportionately withdrawn from school to assist their mothers in caring for those with HIV/AIDS. The responsibility for care provision of HIV/AIDS victims has significant impacts on the economic and health lives of women as it denies women equal opportunities for education and work, thus perpetuating women’s low socio-economic status.
- The Law and Women’s Rights
The role of the law in Malawi has contributed to sustaining these gender disparities. There is a large disjuncture between women’s constitutional rights and statutory and customary laws tand this causes serious barriers for women’s empowerment. Customary laws generally dictate unequal gender relations, compounding the discrimination that women face by public and private institutions. Many statutory laws which comprise subsidiary legislation to the Constitution continue to discriminate against women. Citizenship, inheritance, abortion laws, play a strong role in the oppression of women. Consequently, obstacles to gender equality persist in Malawi because of existing discriminatory statutory and customary laws and practices. Customary laws and norms deny women their constitutional rights and jeopardize women’s access to property, inheritance and divorce. For example, wives are often victims of discriminatory inheritance practices in which the deceased husband’s family unlawfully takes property. Such discriminatory customary laws and practices are in need of being removed and/or amended in order to come in line with constitutional provisions.