BY GRAY KALINDEKAFE
In Greek mythology, Soteria was the goddess or spirit (daimon) of safety and salvation, deliverance and preservation from harm (not to be mistaken for Eleos). Soteria was also an epithet of the goddess Persephone, meaning deliverance and safety.
In Malawi, where is our “Soteria” to protect, rescue and provide safety to our women and girls from the brutal and diabolic hands of rapists and defilers?
“We will not accept that there is no end to endemic violence against girls and women and we will work persistently [and] relentlessly for the change we need at government institutional, economic [and] personal–attitudinal level to bring that change,” Justine Greening, March 4 2013.
It is a blessing that this paper is published to commemorate the global campaign of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The commemoration takes place worldwide from November 25 to December 10 every year. The days were set to symbolise the importance of fighting this injustice. However, the campaign and fight have to be continuous, coordinated, unstoppable, and take a multi-faceted approach .
This year, the United Nations is marking the 16 days under the global theme set by the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign: ‘Orange the World: End Violence Against Women Now!’ Malawi’s campaign this year is under a localised theme: ‘Orange Malawi, End Violence Against Women and Girls, Act Now’.
The crescendo of this commemoration this year was marked by the First Lady Monica Chakwera who, when she launched it on November 25 2021, called for more awareness.
“Our culture and traditions must move with the changing time. Let us embrace progressive lifestyles, programmes and initiatives that promote women and girls to become empowered and self-reliant. It is also the priority of the government to ensure that our country is GBV-free,” she emphasised.
Our society is caught in the vicious web of entrenched, archaic cultural and traditional practices which are veiled in utter patriarchy and militate against transformative agenda of emancipating our women and girls from the york of gender-based violence. We, therefore, wish to repeat the deep connections between freedom from fear, freedom from want and ending gender-based violence. It is time to turn the tide of violence against women and end it.
The rising movement by both women and men to end impunity for sexual abuse and build understanding of its enduring consequences has shown us how, with awareness, comes the determination for change and with unity of purpose comes the strength to accomplish it. Human beings are born free and equal, both in rights and in dignity.
On December 10, nearly 70 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international assertion of the “highest aspiration of the common people”, including the “promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and “… a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”. This is the fundamental principle enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The declaration emphasises inclusiveness of effort, including every individual and every organ of society in the work to secure the observance of rights. We acknowledge the value of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things—women and men—who risk standing up for the protection of rights and access to justice as well as the civil society and media organisations who amplify these calls and do so much to hold their governments to highest standards.
Around the world, women and girls still struggle to exercise their full human rights. Violence against women and girls is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the deep imbalances in power in our societies and the vulnerabilities and limitations that follow them, especially for the most marginalised, mostly in crisis contexts when vulnerabilities are at their peak and protections at their lowest point. Defending women and girls’ rights means understanding and addressing these effects holistically.
This event comes at what I very much hope is a societal tipping point around how we are talking about violence against women. As such, I think it is appropriate that I begin by discussing the recent media attention surrounding sexual harassment. Many women will have reflected over the past few weeks on their own experiences of harassment, intimidation or assault.
According to the Malawi Police Data Digest covering the period between April and June 2020—covering 34 police stations in all 28 districts focusing on cases of violence and children in conflict with the law—a total of 4 248 [899 girls; 380 boys; 2 214 women and 755 men] new cases of violence were reported at police stations across the country.
These cases remind us that sexual violence continues to be a pervasive tactic of war, terror and political repression. The response continues to be painfully slow. Impunity remains the rule and justice the rare exception. Services are still scarce while security policy is still a male-dominated domain despite clear and compelling evidence linking gender equality with peace.
As we set the stage for the next decade of progress, let us remember that the measure of success is not more reports and meetings, but less violence. It is time to move from groundbreaking resolutions to solutions on the ground, from national commitments to national capacity, from praising the work of women’s groups to adequately funding their work and from paying lip service to the concept of reparations and paying reparations to the survivors.
We must continue to harness the global media as a magnet to pull public attention towards forgotten conflicts, forgotten victims and inconvenient truths. This is because as long as violence and armed conflicts expand, the number of victims will tragically continue to rise. We must keep bringing new dimensions of this issue to light to ensure that no one is left behind or excluded from the dividends of peace and development, which is also the commitment at the heart of Sustainable Development Goals.
Essentially, a survivor-centered approach is one that gives voice and choice to the survivor, restores their agency, builds their resilience and enshrines their experience on the historical record. At the same time, it should deprive the perpetrators of their liberty and means of doing further harm through sanctions, accountability and vetting.
By shifting power dynamics in this way, a survivor-centered approach that works not only for, but with affected individuals can be a profoundly transformative approach. It can reaffirm the status of the survivor as a holder of rights that must be respected. Women’s groups have, for many years, expressed this succinctly through the motto: Nothing about us, without us!
Those of you reading this paper and those that have been working to tackle violence against women and girls day in day out – it is time for everyone to realise that we are all responsible for eradicating violence against girls and women and the underlying attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate it. It is vital that men acknowledge their responsibility and change their behaviours and attitudes.
We need to send a noticeably clear message on behalf of our government and people of Malawi that it is the conduct and behaviour of men that need to change if we are to end the sexual harassment and abuse of women, whether in their workplace, social life or home. We need more men to do this. We need them to join the very many women who are already speaking out, acting and acknowledge that this is not for women to fix, but society.
Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive violations of human rights in the world, one of the least prosecuted crimes and one of the greatest threats to lasting peace and development. I am honoured to be part of this fight to address this urgent matter as we join to advance human rights, democracy, and the common values of humanity. We have to do much more to end these horrible abuses.
This violence against women and children has tremendous costs to communities, nations and societies for public well-being, health, safety and for school achievement, productivity, law enforcement and public programmes and budgets. If left unaddressed, these human rights violations pose profound consequences for current and future generations and for efforts to ensure peace and security to reduce poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The effects of violence can remain with women and children for a lifetime and can pass from one generation to another. Studies show that children who have witnessed or been subjected to violence are more likely to become victims or abusers themselves. Violence against women and girls is an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and systemic gender-based discrimination.
The right of women and children to live free of violence depends on the protection of their human rights and a strong chain of justice.
*The author is a governance, human rights and civic education expert writing in his personal capacity