For 16 days from November 25 to December 10, Malawi observed the annual 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based-Violence (GBV). ALBERT SHARRA reflects on the impact of the campaign.
Eneth*, 27, a resident of Chilomoni Township in Blantyre is a victim of GBV, but does not want to talk about it.
“Is what you are asking about my family or yours?” she retorts at the visit to her house, adding: “If it is to do with my family, please leave my compound.”
Her reaction was expected. For 13 years, she has lived with the problem, but reported to no one until her elder sister, Lucy*, recently exposed it and dragged the couple to a marriage counselor. She says she was compelled after Eneth’s housemaid tipped her about the abuse she suffers.
“It was around midnight. She whispered through the phone saying I should rush to rescue my sister otherwise she will be killed by her husband. Unfortunately, I could not due to lack of transport. When I got there the following morning, I found her sleeping and her husband away to work. She hid everything from me, but when I pressed her, she admitted being beaten up by the husband,” explains Lucy.
She adds that she tried to influence her to report the abuse to marriage counselors, but she refused. This is when Lucy took the matter to the marriage counselors, but the action did not yield much because Eneth told the counselors that she lives peacefully with her husband.
Eneth’s action is not surprising. She is afraid to lose her marriage, her only hope. In a follow up interview while trying to stop the publication of the story, she revealed that what she goes through is nothing compared to what would happen if her marriage collapses.
“Your sources are wrong. He does not beat me up every day. It is once a week and only when he is drunk. I wish you had seen me before we were married. We lived a tough life because our parents passed on when I was only six. There was no one to support us. Things changed when I married him. If the marriage collapses, how will I raise the children? I know what I am doing and I am employing tactics to change my husband’s behaviour slowly. So, it is not something to be reporting to different platforms. Let me fail first,” she explains.
Eneth’s case is just an example of hundreds of women who have made GBV part of their life. The 2014 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on Gender Inequality Index indicates that 43 percent of Malawians experience violence with over 50 percent being women.
But there are reasons that make them keep the abuses under tight lid. Some of the major ones are poverty and dependence as exposed by Eneth. Recently, assistant programme manager for National Association of People living with HIV and Aids in Malawi (Napham) Dickens Kalondo told The Nation that their research shows that most women hide abuses they go through because they have no one to support them if the marriage collapses.
Gender activists also hit at the judiciary. They argue it metes out lenient sentences on GBV cases—something which makes others feel reporting such cases only achieves ending marriages, but not dealing with the behaviour.
However, consequences of GBV are one of the most serious and widespread human rights abuses in Malawi. They continue to subject girls and women to psychological, physical and emotional harm apart from leaving them with injuries and scars that can last forever.
To break GBV, authorities worldwide agreed to set aside 16 days to remember and advocate against the problem. This year’s theme From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All has been described relevant as it promotes peace, which in its absence causes GBV.
Age Africa country director Getrude Kabwazi says the 16 days of activism have improved awareness on GBVs and empower some women to report their cases. She adds that many people now know that GBV is a human rights violation.
She, however, says Malawi has not done enough in addressing peace at household level and argues that this is why success against GBV is dragging. She says the other reason is that the campaign is done mainly through formal education, which leaves out some groups of people.
“This year’s theme forms a triangle that anchors inter-related topics—education, GBV and peace in the home. We need to carry more sensitisation campaigns and these should include informal education sector such as initiation ceremonies and bridal showers to influence family members to live a peaceful life and also marriage counselors to ensure the marriages they look after are peaceful. There should be a component that empowers women and girls to report abuses without fear,” she says.
Kabwazi, however, says this needs multi-faceted efforts and more should be done because many GBV cases are not being reported.
In January this year, the Coalition of Women Living with HIV and Aids (Cowla) released a research study that shows sexual violence is adequately covered under policy legislation, but Cowla’s programmes manager Steve Iphani said this adequacy is achieved when several instruments have been read together which is not happening.
Iphan argued that even the Penal Code fails to directly address some GBVs because the issues are tackled in a broader manner without focus.
For instance, he said the penal code does not put sexual violence in particular context, which creates some lapses although at times are covered by supporting laws such as the Gender Equality Act. He, however, insists that the Penal Code should be reviewed to be relevant.
Gender Empowerment Network (Genet) project manager Tamara Mhango says the 16 days of activism have created a platform for government, organisations and local leaders to reach the public with GBV messages, but says there are still serious unreported GBV practices behind doors. She says the statistics of girls not in school and those into forced marriages are discouraging.
“There is some significant success in the fight against GBVs, but when the media continues to report more GBV cases, it tells us to do more,” says Mhango. n
Eneth and Lucy are not the real names. We have deliberately protected the identity of the two owing to the marital problems under discussion.