Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are women on the rise in Africa?

It is easy to believe that women are on the rise in the Africa of today, especially when one considers that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and Joyce Banda, that of the Republic of Malawi. From July 2012, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma took over the leadership of the African Union. Indeed, the list of women occupying spaces of power is growing. However, a few questions need to be asked before we can say women are on the rise or not. Firstly, what is the main source of oppression for women of Africa and can they rise from it, by becoming president of a country? What constitutes women being on the rise in Africa? Who is woman in Africa? More specifically, are the women who are ‘rising’ representative of women in Africa?
The Yoke of Male Superiority/Privileging
Research clearly illustrates that the principle of male supremacy, is the engine of the oppression of many African women. For women to be on the rise, the gender ideology of seeing men as people who are superior to women, has to be deconstructed and brought to an end.
In the context of such gender relations, one wonders if one woman’s joining of the nation state, especially given its sexist and male privileging character, really makes a difference? I would argue that unless one changes the male privileging structure that has produced that woman, both in and outside the state, the one she has have risen through and become master at, her joining of the state is often a cooptation, a process that demands her to become a ‘man’. In fact, her very survival in the position depends on her ability to perform this manhood and assure the status quo that she will continue to privilege men and manhood.
Outnumbered, by Far
Another factor that is crucial to remember is that right now, only two out of fifty four African countries are being led by women. Interestingly, this pathetically imbalanced proportion is being read by some as women being on the rise. This is laughable, particularly when one remembers that demographically, women are over half of the population in most countries in Africa. Imagine if after the independence struggles only two out of the fifty four countries were being led by Africans. I do not think that would be read as Africans being on the rise.
Change the Structure
For women to be on the rise, whatever the woman leader does must trickle down to the other women. This means we have to change and transform the colonial structures imposed on the African social landscape such as the modern state, organized religion, global capitalism, reinvent male privileging institutions that oppress women at personal and communal levels such such as marriage.
When we say African women are on the rise, we need to be sure if we are talking about leadership or structure. What needs to change is the structure to enable women to emerge from the base, instead of being appointed. Transformation is needed but this can only occur with the transformation of the whole system.
Who is surrounding Her?
Political power has a lot to do with the people who surround the leader, it comes from the structure. The women in power are often surrounded by men in a system that is constructed to serve men.
Stereotypical Appointments
It is also sad that many times, women are appointed into positions stereotyped to be for women. A good example is Joyce Banda’s choice for ministry of gender. In order to change the patriarchal gender ideologies and show that women are fit to be leaders, it would be good to appoint them into ministries such as defense. This can help contest the political culture and tradition.
Majority of African woman
The majority of African women are poor, living in the rural area and illiterate. The bulk of the women who are ‘rising’ are not from this class. Zuma, Sirleaf Johnson and Banda, are card carrying members of the ruling elite, socially and politically.
What to Do?
One could ask how do we ensure women truly rise in Africa? This is where one needs well researched, effectively implemented and monitored affirmative action programmes. These need to be homegrown and owned. Botswana and Rwanda are examples of African countries that are registering significant gains in women’s participation in political power. Affirmative action is what addresses structural imbalances, not having one woman running government. Women need to be in leadership positions in various board rooms, political parties and spaces of knowledge production such as the university, just to mention a few. If we can get 50 percent of boards and parliaments to be ‘womaned’ by women, then you have opened space bottom up, instead of just having one woman up there, in structure that is hostile to women.
A female president can make a huge difference in her country and this can be in increasing women’s participation in democracy, making sure that the state is accessible to women. She will make sure that their voices, especially that of the uneducated, the rural illiterate, is taken into consideration and not belittled by being assumed or spoken for. A woman president can champion issues concerning women. But, the woman leader has to remember that the male supremacy principle is used to control resources and power and when threatened, it mutates and reinvents itself, reminding the woman leader that she will be punished by those peddling and benefiting from this male privileging, if she does not maintain and reproduce it. So the woman president has to be an organic leader one who takes gender justice as a principle. She has to be someone whose political capital resides in having integrity, truth and justice, not populist loyalty. Because of the globality and interconnectedness of indigenous, colonial and capitalist male privileging ideologies, an African woman president must be prepared not to be voted back into office but focus on standing for what is right. Such a stand will most likely be costly politically and its fruits take time to be registered. They are not short term, yet politics is built and thrives on short term results. Such a leader knows that change is not an event, it is a process and benefits of woman friendly stand will most likely be harvested in the long run and by other people. This kind of a woman leader is committed to the greater good, the collective vision, not the next election or the ability of her post materially benefiting herself and those surrounding her. Such a woman president would not use and depend on recycled politicians as they are clear products of a ‘boys club’ that has survived on mastering and playing the political field, an entity that has historically been modeled on corrupt male forms of power.
The woman president would handle issues of the economy is an astute, mature, meticulously informed manner because she knows that poverty informs issues that produce and propel women’s oppression such as gender based violence, maternal death, HIV and AIDS, and impacts of adverse climate change. This woman would demonstrate that she is aware that many African women are in the informal sector and they live in situations rife with power relations skewed against them locally and globally at race, gender and class levels. The way she handles issues such as devaluations, would illustrate that she knows that such things are lethal to the poor, uneducated and living with HIV and AIDS, majority of whom are women.
A non-male dominated State
One could ask what a non-male dominated state would look like. Firstly, the state would prioritise female participation in various institutions, bottom up, top down and horizontally, especially in issues that concern women. Structures that produces political power will be reconfigured to invite and accommodate women in their large numbers, starting by deconstructing ways of running the state that favor male forms of power. Such a state would adopt feminist approach to development and fighting poverty, maternal death, HIV/AIDS and climate change impacts. In such a state, woman would not be a second class citizen and women’s empowerment and personhood would be an issue of priority. Issues the oppress women would take center stage in state sponsored programmes. Women’s labour would be recognized and rewarded, including what is done at home and in private and informal spaces.
It is good that the number of women in positions of authority in Africa is increasing but for this to constitute a rise in the definition and lives of women in Africa, the structure that produces what is called a person, man, woman and power has to change. After that, you can begin to ask if the emergence of women like Joyce Banda means a rise for women of Africa.

Jessie Kabwila Ph.D.
20th September, 2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My thoughts on Women, showing flesh and empowerment

I think something in African feminist scholarship needs to be done about women, especially young ones cherishing their looks, showing of their bodies more than being politically savvy, educated, have a grounded opinionatedness. there is something wrong when women value showing their flesh, nakedness and live for their looks, attractiveness. How does one negotiate the polirisation of the patriarchal silencing of women's bodies versus the human rights discourse of this is my body and i can throw away my dignity and self respect, i am sexy business that is driving me crazy, as a feminist, this is killing me. i see it here in Germany, the US, at home (Malawi), wherever i look. what to do?

Honestly, this issue is worrying me because i fight and believe in women's rights but, i see that the burning of bras, empowerment movement seems to be interpreted to mean i can value sex and showing myself as a sex symbol, becoming a prisoner to make up and dressing, bags, shopperhocalism, than knowing what is on the news, how can i be an engaged citizen. i hear women proudly saying 'ine zandale ayi'(I do not like/do politics) when some of us are fighting day and night for women, whose majority is the poor and kept out of corridors of knowledge, to enter spaces of power. meanwhile those young girls are very scantily clothes, walking past you swaying their hips and salivating on the latest hollywood fashion, spending money of wanna be culture. what does an academic activist do. that kind of dressing plays right into the hands of the religious patriarchs who now order a clamp down on women's dressing, in the name of them enticiing men, which is a new problem now and you end up in the Malawian market issues when i come out blazing defending my right to dress. but, how does one inculcate rights that are deeply imbedded in responsibilities, is my question, which i think the euro-western discource has failed to do miserable and we have a chance to do better

Friday, June 22, 2012


I get there in my german jersey but already decided to support greece.

Before the game starts, as the players are filing in, a Greek group of fans is shown waving and then passing down an doll, almost an effigy of Angela Meckel, in full german colours, and it is undressed in front of the cameras. Then Greek anthem is first to be sang and one supporter in the crowd where i am decides it is time to boo.

Germany scores first and I say, well i expected that. Second half, Greece scores and i heave a sign of relief, one for those of us who cannot balance our budgets and are perpertual borrowers. The crowd is silenced but Germany quickly scores and and the floodgates open. Germany lets loose an avalanche of goals, making me feel so bad for Greece but, tough luck Greece, the best team won, really wish you had won, just to open a new discourse in this have versus have nots talk, at half time, a tv anchor actually said 'if greeks ran their economy the way they played their football in the first half, the euro would not be in situation it is now. Talk about nationalism and football, now it is euro politics being played out on the pitch, interesting. but, the best team won. if england faces germany, do not know who to support, in all honesty. will just watch and see what happens.

unfortunately i could not hear the german that was around me, football is really a big tool of constructing national politics, makes one very guilty of reproducing this discourse when you love football like i do. i have never seen so many flags ain germany since i came as i have seen during the game and the question for me is how much of that is good natinalism versus destructive one, if there is good nationalism to start with, i know when Malawi wins, i am happy and i enjoy waving my flag and being around Malawians, chanting etc. but, how much of that is constructed about a nation and not in opposition and superiority to another, i wonder.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A sworn radical perspective to research, what a plausible defense, neutrality is not an option

CODESRIA iS committed to a critical perspective ....[T]his means a perspective which looks at social scIence methodologies and theories in a critical manner and tries to find, in the light of tHis critique, a manner of proceeding that will be most appropriate for our historical specificity in Africa... We are inclined to think that a search for a neutral position will be meaningless and futile and will tend to defeat the mission of CODESRIA (1985).

Claude Ake the then president of CODESRIA puts it even more succinctly,

What is needed is a Social Science which meets the real needs of the Third World, the need to get the basic amenities of life, the need for self-determination, the need to create conditions which allow the people of the third world to realise their potentials, the need to end their exploitative dependence on Imperialist powers... If social science is to move in the directions in which it is involved with the critical problems of of the whole society, then it has to be associated with mass-oriented development... Understood (as) development which seeks to revolutionise the conditions of production such that people are not alienated from their labour and their product, and to ensure that the most good of most people, that the exploitative dependence of the (African) economy on imperialist capital is ended. A social science which tried to promote the realisation of this ideal of development will be radical different from the received social prevailing today.
(qtd. in de Vylder, S. and Arnas, A.H., 'Social Sciences in Africa: the Role of CODESRIAin Pan-African Co-operation', in SAREC Documentation: Evaluation, 1991.

I am in a institution that was founded on Marxist, leftist ideals. I could not be happier, feel very vindicated and honoured. My pleasure Prof Ake, to stand on the shoulders of people who hate alienation and talk of mass oriented development. Cornell West would agree with this and say, brains and brilliance should be linked to frameworks that put people at the center.
I am very imprsssed by the reflections of the founding Executive Secretary of CODESRIA: The major worry (of African scholars) was over academic freedom and prospect of a legitimising rather than influencing role of social scientists. The second reason was to counter the influence of former colonial powers in universities and rsearch institutes, and the third reason was the strong belief of AFrican scholars at the time that (a) the government has rightly the rsponsbility for developing their countries and (b) that the scholars had the responsibility of informing and influencng the government to carry out relelvant and approapriate development politicies. The scholars at the time sincerely believed that the government would listen to them or that they would be able to infusence critical personalities and forces in the government - espcially if the scholar's voice came from a Pan-African body of scholars. Bujra, A., 'Whither Social Science Institutions in Africa: A Prognosis,' in Africa Development XIX:1: 138-142. Dakar: CODESRIA, 1994, p.143.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Doing ‘Gender’ Cannot Improve Malawian Women’s Lives:
A Critical Assessment of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy

Despite the various strategies that have been employed to end gender inequality and equity in various African countries by governments and non governmental organisations, evidence abounds that the anticipated change in the lives of women has not taken place. It is also clear that there is lack of research that critically evaluates the affectivity of these strategies. This chapter attributes this failure to the way gender has been conceptualized in the strategies employed. More often than not, gender scholars, activists and development experts alike have tended to ‘do gender’ (Butler 1990) instead of ‘undoing it’ (Deutch 2007). Instead of using a formula that generates strategies that improve the lives of women, what often obtains is a process that reproduces the gender inequalities originally set out to be reversed. Malawi like other African countries has over a long period implemented programmes and projects aimed at advancing the lives of women. One recent initiative is the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). One of its aims is to be a blue print of strategies to improve the lives of women in various spheres in Malawi. Using a literary approach, this study engages the MGDS, critically examining how gender as a category fares as a tool to stimulate strategies to better the lives of women. It also measures its affectivity in the face of case studies of key and interlinked problems women of Malawi are facing as testified in The Daily Times, one of Malawi leading newspapers.

Poverty tends to affect women more than men in the nation [Malawi].
Avert.org. http://www.avert.org/aids-malawi.htm

Women who constitute about 51 percent of the population are marginalized in social and economic
spheres such that they are unable to effectively contribute to social, economic and political
development of Malawi
Malawi Growth and Development Strategy
5.3.3. Sub Theme Three: Gender, p51.

Evidence that the condition of Malawian women has not changed even though at government and non governmental levels, various strategies have been employed to end gender inequality and equity, abounds resoundingly. This is despite the fact that Malawi has had a laundry list of strategies to combat gender inequality for example, the National Platform for Action, National Gender Policy, Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (MPRS), National Strategy on Gender Based Violence, National Gender Program and now the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). From print to popular text, what obtains is a stubborn worsening of the woman question. In fact, scholars and critics of various disciplines agree that hiv and aids , poverty, low literacy levels and high maternal mortality are problems that definitely have a woman face in Malawi (Chirwa 2005, Siziya 2008, Harrigan 2008, Holzberg 2009, MGDS 2006-2011). These problems, often of pandemic proportions, inform and exacerbate each other. In the face of such painfully hard and true findings, the question that haunts an academic dedicated to use research to help map ways to improve the lives of women in Malawi like me is, why, after so many traceably protracted strategies have been employed, is the situation of Malawian women not changing, it is actually worsening? Before answering that question, it is important to understand the shape and complexion of Malawi’s gender inequality.
Ephraim Chirwa’s (1989) argues that in Malawi, the male supremacy principle is present and it contributes to the inferior status of Malawian women . Tizifa eloquently supports this stand in “Women and Socio-Economic Freedom: What Impedes Women”:
The Malawian society is organized along patriarchal ideology, an ideology which values men more than women, where men dominate women and what is masculine more that what is concerned feminine (Tizifa 2004 ).
In view of the foregoing, this paper argues that one of the reasons strategies employed to change the lives of Malawian women so far have not worked is because, there is a definite disconnect between the problem and prescribed solutions. The strategies (prescribed solutions) employed thus far have been anchored and propelled from the gender concept when the problem is that of women, not of women and men. After all, gender is a concept that departs and is based on the parity of genders but the reality in Malawi is one of male supremacy. In fact, most of the problems of women in Malawi largely depart from and are built on the inequality of sex/gender and the subordination of women. Gender is a concept designed to examine the problems of both men and women, when it is clear that the affliction of problems in Malawi is skewed to one side, that of women. The second reason is a consequence of the first. Because of being built on and around gender, the strategies employed in Malawi thus far, are two busy doing the balancing act, they do not focus on the subject in need of attention. As a result, they fail to clearly label the type and systemic causes of the gender inequality that is at the epic-centre of the various forms of female oppression in Malawi. This failure makes the strategies weak, helpless and/or blind to identify and the patriarchy that makes Malawian women both ‘socially and economically subordinate to men’ (Avert.org, 2009) . This is the engine that houses, drives and perpetuates female oppression individually and collectively. This cripples the ability of gender strategies to transform the lives of women as one cannot fight and defeat that which they cannot even name. The paper asserts that by failing to name and call out patriarchy , especially in its double form (Omofolabo Ajayi 1996) these strategies fall on their gender faces as the gender concept they are hinged on does not even register the spinal source of female oppression, later on its manifestations. Consequently, these strategies ‘do’ (Butler 1990) instead of ‘undoing’ (Butler 2004 and Deutsch 2007) the problems of women in Malawi. Using gender to solve a classically feminist problems like the problems of women in Malawi, is like expecting a round cake to come from a square baking tin, it is impossible, unreasonable and futile.
Taking off from a critical analysis of a 2005 Malawi Government statement, made by Joyce Banda as Minister of Gender, outlining efforts taken to better the lives of women, the paper engages the MGDS, illustrating how the strategy’ gender concept fails to improve the lives of women in Malawi. By design, the concept is unable to unearth and deconstruct underlying and systemic causes of problems of women for example, the role of women’s limited power and ability to make decisions in the construction of their problems. By so doing, it fails to name and call out factors that propel and maintain a fluent conversation that connect their problems.
Government of Malawi, Women’s Advancement
The statement delivered on 7 March 2005 at the 49th Session of the Commission on the status of women, by the then Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services Joyce Banda, on behalf of the Malawi government - illustrates that to a large extent, gender is the concept driving the bulk of government’s efforts to improve the woman condition in Malawi. The statement makes it clear that Malawi government recognizes that of the two genders, it is women who need urgent attention if the country is to develop. Banda starts off by underlining that ‘women’s position in the society remains subordinated’ (2005, 4) and cites the high maternal mortality that is killing 1,120 out of every 100 000 live births, worsened by a critical shortage of skilled health personnel (2005, 3). She goes on to emphasise that:
The elimination of violence against women is an essential element of the Beijing framework and is of immense importance to achieving sustainable development, peace and security (2005, 3).
Her speech ends with her reiterating that hiv and aids is affecting women more than men from the transmission to care giving, impacting the reproductive life and productivity of Malawian women (2005, 4). However, even though she presents a woman based list of problems, when it comes to efforts being adopted to advance the lives of women, she prescribes strategies that are largely gender in character:
• National Platform for Action
• National Gender Policy
• Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy
• National Strategy on Gender Based Violence
• National Gender Program
(MGDS 2005, 2).
This list is supplied right after Banda states that the Government of Malawi is using these strategies for women’s advancement. So, through Banda, the Malawi government demonstrates that it believes a gender approach can solve problems that are mainly female and woman in orientation. When government is how it is tackling and plans to improve the lives of women in Malawi now, August 2011, it points to the gender section of the MGDS.
The MGDS’ Incapability to Better Women’s Lives
Unfortunately right from the start, the Gender section of MGDS evidences a contradiction in purpose that cripples its ability to focus on women and help end their problems. Gender is the operative word in this section. It is the title. It is used repeatedly, showing that the MGDS sees gender as an able tool to impact and transform Malawian women’s lives. The introduction of the section shows that by all counts, gender as a label, concept and process drives and moulds the MDGS as a tool to end the gender inequality of Malawi:
Gender inequalities in accessing productive resources, development
opportunities and decision making affect economic growth and development. The Gender Development Index for Malawi of 0.374 indicates that large disparities between men and women exist. Women who constitute about 51 percent of the population are marginalized in social and economic spheres such that they are unable to effectively contribute to social, economic and political development of Malawi Education is a key factor for women empowerment. However women tend to have lower education levels than men leading to their lower participation in many areas of development. The main challenges are social/cultural factors, limited access to means of production, and limited participation in social and economic activities. The abuse of human rights or gender-based violence is tilted towards women and children and has accelerated other factors in their disfavour such as spread of HIV and AIDS.
(Section 5.3.3, sub theme number three: Gender, 2009-2011, 51)
As shown above, the problems of women in Malawi are manifested in a way that the concept of gender is not able to tackle. Gender talks of parity but they are not shared equally by men and women, they predominantly borne by women. The problems are products of the subordination of women. This view is bailed out but the opening words of the MGDS section that devoted to handling issues of women, the one quoted above. Evidently, it is women who have more problems than men. Their problems need solutions that focus on women being oppressed by men because they are the ones being marginalised. A tool that balances the sexes and genders will not be able to solve such a problem. The incapability of the MDGS solve the problems of women is underlined by the section of goals that follows:
• Long Term
mainstream gender in the national development process to
enhance equal participation of both sexes for sustainable development.
• Medium term- reduced gender inequality.
These goals show that it does not focus on women, the ones who are the main victims of the problems. It is not focusing on the subject of the problem in the medium term neither is it planning to in the long term. Laughably, instead of these strategies aiming to reduce or stop the bleeding by focusing on where exactly it is coming from, they plan to reduce inequalities concerning both men and women. What is worse is that this reduction of gender inequality is said to come about through use of a tool that assumes a levelling of the genders and levels as it goes along, in the name of improving the lives on one gender. That sounds very confusing and loaded with a poverty of commitment to the woman cause. If one is dealing with problems produced from a gender climate skewed against one, the million dollar question is how does one hope to being to solve the problems and end up with gender parity, without ever bringing up the side that is down and the one that is up down. One of those steps has to happen and be registered to be happening, if we are to have any degree of success unless, the goal is not to tackle the problems in the first place and/or not succeed in the task.
The main strategies of the MGDS include:
• Strengthening the institutional capacity for effective co-ordination of gender
policy implementation;
• Taking affirmative action to increase women and children decision makers in high levels of the public and private sectors;
• Promoting gender equality through advocacy; and
• Breaking the cultural/traditional factors which create and perpetuate gender
What stands out to a person who is really determined to see how these strategies can help change the lives of women is that three out of the four strategies are gender in character. The one that mentions women infantilises and domesticates them by lumping them together with women. What is worse is that the one that focuses on women is talking of increasing access to spaces of decision making, without unearthing that which keeps the women out of such places. Strategies like those perform a structural violence (Reinhardt 2008) on women because the can easily suggest that failure of the women to access those spaces is their fault. They easily construct a ‘blame the victim’ process that exonerates the factors responsible for keeping women out of the corridors of power. That strategy would make sense if it was flanked by strategies that lay bare the factors keeping women and children out of spaces of power and status. One could argue that strategy number four does exactly that but that is false because it is examining not talking of women and children. As long as it does not specify the kind of gender inequality we are dealing with, it glosses over the fact that the situation obtaining is that of women suffering most. Indeed, one is forgiven and even expected, to read the last strategy as one that concerns both men and women.
One could still ask, what is really wrong with using gender driven concepts to solve the problem of women?
The price of using Gender - Silence on Women’s Decision Making Deficiency
The gender of the MDGS talks of gender inequality but, how the two genders are causatively related, who the victim or aggressor is, is not clear. That one sex and gender is defined on the basis of the inferiorisation and silencing of the other, and that that is what is underlining the problems of one of the genders, is glossed over. Instead, a parity that does not exist is envisaged right from the start. In other words, gender driven strategies fail to convincingly register the gender war obtaining on the ground and its causalities, the main of which is female personhood and women living as second class citizens. This is manifested in the litany of problems women experience. More importantly, the fact that power is at the centre of this gender war, is muted and this mirrors what is at the heart of women’s problem and that women’s lack of power to make decisions and have a voice in several issues. This problem of decision making is huge because it is the vehicle that links the problems women get inflicted by in many spaces, as individuals and a group, in various spheres. This is made very clear by Wezzi Nkhoma-Somba when she quotes the “World’s Women and Girls 2011 Data Sheet report” which argues that,
one of the consequences of husbands making most of the decisions in the household ….is that Malawian women are more vulnerable to illness and disease as well as maternal complications and they are also a subject to social isolation (Malawi News April 23-29, 2011, 5).
The report goes on to give statistics that illustrate how acutely patriarchal the decision process between men and women in Malawi is:
80 percent of men in Malawi, make decisions on large household purchases, 70 percent make decisions regarding the wife’s health care, 65 percent of men make decisions on the daily household purchases while 38 percent make decisions on the visits to relatives…Malawi has also been rated among the top ten countries wit the highest fertility levels with an average of six or more children and also among the top nine countries with the highest proportion of early marriage at 50 percent (Malawi News April 23-29, 2011, 5).
Obviously, when one is not well, not being in charge of making decisions on health care, makes them more vulnerable. Malawi is one of the hardest hit with hiv and aids with women taking the heaviest number of casualties (Siziya et al, 2008). In fact,
Of the six countries globally with the highest number of HIV/AIDS-infected people, five are in Africa: Botswana’s infection rate is 18 percent, Zimbabwe 17.4 per cent, Zambia 17.1 per cent, Malawi 13.6 per cent and South Africa 11.4 per cent.
The CIA World Fact book actually argues that Malawi is one of the few nations where men outlive women due to the lethal combination of hiv and aids, poverty and maternal mortality rates, just to mention a few. When Kathewera Banda in “Poverty and Gender in Malawi,” asserts that ‘In Malawi, poverty largely has a woman’s face -58.4% of the poorest households are female headed’ (NSO, 2004), the reason she gives makes it imperative for MDGS to rethink the efficacy of the concept it employs to try and help the women of Malawi. The reason illustrates the wisdom to priorities using a concept that exposes the issue of the power to make decisions between the genders. She emphatically attributes the gender of the face of poverty to the fact that women have ‘limited power.’ She emphatically states that most women cannot make decisions’ and this ‘affects their ability to engage in meaningful activities to move out of poverty’ (NSO 2004, 4).
Not having the power to decide when to give birth and how many children to have means women can give birth too early and/or when it is even risky to do so. It is not surprising that Malawi has a high mortality rate when women largely do not control when and if to give birth. Kwataine, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN) emphasizes that in Malawi, ‘women do not have the power to bargain or make decisions because they are afraid to be divorced by their husbands’ (qtd. in Nkhoma-Somba 2011, 5). Kwataine goes on to illustrate how this deficiency to make decisions contributes to the high mortality rate, social isolation and early marriages.
It is important to note the current Minister of Women, gender and child development, Theresa Mwale, collaborates the World’s Women and Girls 2011 Data Sheet report, underling that indeed, ‘men make most of the decisions in the family’ (qtd. in Nkhoma-Somba 2011, 5). It is interesting to note that when she is asked what can me done to solve this problem, she prescribes a woman centered, feminist solution, not a gender one. She prescribes women empowerment programmes targeted to help women make decisions in the family. Notice that she does not point to a program that will go to both men and women. She adds that her ministry is targeting education for women and the girl child. Furthermore, her suggestion engages the issue of power directly.
Outing Institutions – The Patriarchal Marriage
The fact that gender driven strategies do not engage systemic causes of gender inequality and the subordination of women is a double edged sword to any meaningful effort to improve the lives of women. It means historical factors that render Malawian and most African women subordinate are either outright absent in equation or glossed over. As a result, institutions, systemic processes and concepts that connive to house and perpetuate the problems of women slip through the cracks, taking advantage of the poverty of attention they receive. This view is concretely illustrated in the researches of Kathewera Banda (2004) and Mweninguwe (2006). When Kathewera states that Malawian women’s reproductive and care giving roles contribute to their being in poverty, they argue that the institutions of marriage and motherhood, are linked to the long hour’s women work, whilst getting very little for their labour. They emphasise that this is detrimental to the economic livelihood of the women (Kathewera 2004, 4). She also argues that they have limited access and control over resources, quoting Government of Malawi statistics of 2008 that 9.7women were able to access loans compared to 14% men (2004, 4). Mweninguwe examines how the patriarchal institution of marriage, one where women as wives and mothers have very little say, contributes to the spread of hiv and aids and ultimately, impoverishment of women. His research is from Chazale in Kayuni, Karonga District, in the north of Malawi (2006, 1).
What is clear is that any strategy to improve the life of women has to engage the patriarchal institution of marriage because it has a crucial impact in who they are and what they do. The value of marriage in the construction of women’s identity is a pivotal issue in many countries in Africa, including Malawi. In Recreating Ourselves (1994), Molara Ogundipe Leslie identifies different forms of patriarchy in the mountains shackling the African women (36) and calls it an ‘age’ an ‘centuries’ old male superiority principle. She singles out the oppression that African women face in marriage and says this is where most of the oppression of the African woman is located (75). In Reconceptualising the Family (2005) McFadden delivers one of the clearest indictments of the marriage institution in much of neo-colonial Africa describing it as:
a site of power for men, and a place of servitude (long hours of unpaid work, violation and life threatening birthing and labour) for most women, in particular for poor women the world over, is not restricted to Africa. The patriarchal family is the oldest surviving male-owned institution in all human societies (67).
Clearly, indigenous patriarchy has historically played a crucial role in the oppression of the woman of Africa. Annan-Yao’s assertion not only demonstrates not only the prevalence but historicity of patriarchy to the African woman question:
Gender relations are always patriarchal in nature and therefore necessarily male dominated, particularly in Africa. So whether one is looking at a matrilineal or patrilineal community, the upper or lover classes, men always insist on the subordinate status of women (qtd. in Gender, Economics 2004: 2)
In Malawi, the background of the GTZ Research of 2003 emphasises that one of the main causes of the various manifestations of female oppression, for example gender-based-violence is ‘the unequal power relationships between women and men’ (MPRS, 2001:4).
Clearly, strategies attempting to improve the lives of Malawian have to engage the institution of marriage. To emphasise this point, Mweninguwe quotes a girl who drops out of school to get married and do household so that she can be a good/‘normal’ woman in her community, the one she is expected to be in conformity with her patriarchal culture. When asked why she dropped out of school she laments:
What can I do? Every woman knows that she has to support the family. She needs to work hard and any lazy woman does not stay in the marriage longer (Mweninguwe 2004, 1).
For one to keep such a woman or girl in school, the issue of marriage and female self determination has to be brought up. That is not an issue that a gender concept can handle after all, it is a feminist issue. If you apply the strategies of the MGDS here, it is evident that they will fail to solve the problem as this is not just a problem of balancing the equation and increasing access of boys and girls, men and women to schools. It is not an issue that can be solved by strengthening institutional capacity as the key strategies of the MGDS prescribe. What is needed here is to focus on the girl child and/or woman, develop strategies that expose how power is being used to infantilise and commodify woman as helper and compliment of man. What is needed is to find strategies that campaign for and institutionalise female self determination. If one examines the woman quoted by Mweninguwe, what is clear is that marriage defines who she is and if that is the case, she will do anything to stay in that marriage. This can include having unprotected sex with an infected husband and letting him make healthcare decisions. This can lead to a triangle of problems including hiv and aids, social isolation, early marriage and its attendant hazards. The argument being advanced here is that, strategies that can help improve the lives of this woman need to attack and work to end the patriarchy in marriages and help carve female personhood. Some might think I am arguing against marriages and saying Malawian women need to be single and/or lesbian in order to improve their lives. Whilst I have nothing against such a status and or sexual orientation, what I am arguing for here is not that. This paper is arguing against the institution of marriage being put as the destination of female personhood, the frame along which womanhood spins, the thing that completes a woman’s identity. That is a major contributor to because it compromises the personhood of women and they end up doing anything to keep that marriage. Mariama Ba’s character Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter (1988), ably illustrates the point I am trying to make. Ramatoulaye demonstrates dependence to marriage that eclipses any semblance of personhood. She declares that she cannot do without marriage:
I am one of those who can realize themselves fully and bloom only when they form part of a couple. Even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage (55-56).
This is a woman whose identity is dependent on and defined by a union with a man. Such a woman cannot make her own decisions and most of what she does is to please a man and preserve the marriage.
In contrast, Tambudzai, Dangarembga’s character in Nervous Conditions (1988) exemplifies female personhood. She eloquently demonstrates this when Babamukuru makes marriage the priority and main target for any decent woman, prescribing it to Tambudzai, in the discussion about her being offered a scholarship to Sacred Heart. Tambudzai explains the importance of a woman attaining selfhood, having a self-identity and owning herself, before yoking herself to another identity. Tambudzai wisely takes a stand against the repeated reference of marriage to her life:
I had nothing against it [marriage] in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to thin about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could call it my own. Babamukuru had lost me with all this talk of marriage (180).
Tambudzai illustrates a woman who has a life of her own. Strategies that are born of feminist concepts like the one that drives Tambudzai can help fortify women’s abilities to make their own decisions. That is a power that can be applied to their economic, sexual and working lives. There is need for strategies that define women not as wives and mothers but as individuals in their own right. Such strategies define woman as a human being who has a full identity and dreams of her own, not one who needs to be married in order to be a complete human being. Gender driven strategies cannot do this as they depend on an equal footing of male and female,
Outing Religious Patriarchy
By not engaging systemic causes, gender driven strategies also construct a ‘blame the victim’ cycle. This happens when factors that contribute to women having problems are not identified and strategised against, thereby making women appear to largely be complicit victims, suffering the problems by choice. For example, one could ask the woman cited by Mweninguwe why she thinks she has no choice but to be in a marriage that is detrimental to her life? If one asked Tambudzai and/or Ramatoulaye quoted above the same question, the first answers that come up point to their respective communal cultures. These literary female characters also cite Euro-Western and Middle Eastern organised religion. Out of Malawi’s population of about Fifteen Million two hundred and sixty three thousand people , 55% are Protestant, 20% Muslim and 20% Roman Catholic. Evidently, Euro-western and eastern organised religion plays a large role in decisions made by people of Malawi, the women inclusive. If one is to attempt to map strategies to improve the lives of women in Malawi, you need strategies that engage institutions like Christianity and Islam. After all, Ruth Besha has cited religion [read Euro-western organised] as one of the reasons for the pathetic position of African women (1996:59). She states that the history of religion is that of reinforcing patriarchal values in society. She further contends that Christianity has actually reversed the successes of women in Africa, as it did in Europe. Any strategies that aim to really help women of Malawi improve their lives, has to engage these religions because their predominance affects a lot of what women do and what happens to them. Gender driven approaches do not to bring to light underlying factors, later on plan to tackle them.
Outing Patriarchy of Education
If one does not engage Africa’s history with organised Euro-western education, they can easily define Malawian women as a group of people who lack agency and are to blame for their positionality in their communities. Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver, 1998) and Death and The Kings Horseman (Wole Soyinka, 1960) illustrates beyond any doubt that colonisers regarded their women as of inferior in status to them and treated African men as superior to African women. This applied to both the British and French colonisers and this is evidenced in Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter. Kumah calls the colonial policy of education, “patriarchal based education of males” (2). In “Foundations of Literary Criticism”, Nnaemeka asserts that the novels written by scholars in postcolonial African lands have been affected by,
The sexual politics and Victorian ideals of colonial education, which has created a hierarchy of privileging men by virtually erasing any meaningful female presence (qtd. in Carolyn Kumah, 2002:2).
If we go back to So Long A Letter (1988), it is evident that men are more privileged to education. This is right from access to the class room itself right up to getting keeping the employment that this education leads to. The same goes for Nervous Conditions (1988), the whole narrative is built on Tambudzai’s bitterness at her brother Nhamo’s privilege to education. The main reason for Tambu’s bitterness is that she is denied the opportunity to go to school purely because she is female. Tambu has a brilliant academic record but her father prefers to educate her brother because Jeremiah [Tambu’s father] believes education is futile for Tambudzai. What she needs are skills to be a good wife and mother. He asks Tambu:
Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn how to cook and clean, grow vegetables (15).
In the Africa and Malawi of today, being educated is the key to being employed, making money and having an identity. One’s ability to make a decision in many issues is affected by how much one knows but if the tools and space of acquiring education has been the preserve of men, women’s decision making deficiency in the Africa of today, begins to make sense. This problematises the use of gender as a concept because it assumes a parity that is not obtaining here and in addition, does not unearth the history of patriarchy of education that continues to hamper the ability of many women to make decisions in various spheres of their lives. This patriarchy of education, eloquently speaks with that of religion and that of indigenous cultures, combining to churn a vicious circle of problems.
Conclusion - ‘Doing’ Instead of ‘Undoing’ Gender
The MGDS, through using a gender approach, ends up ‘doing’ instead of undoing the gender inequality of Malawi which is of male supremacy and female subordination in character. Because of being based on a gender parity that facts negate, being blind and silent on systemic causes, it ends up constructing a system that maintains the gender inequality obtaining. If a strategies glosses over the patriarchy of religion, that of education and that of institutions such as marriage, then they go unabated and in way, they are being done instead of being undone. Women like the ones cited in the reports and literary works above continue to suffer the yoke of oppression because the hub of their problems has been left unattended. Weber (2002) and Winant (2002) explain what happens when a particular race is having problems but one employs ‘a balance all the races approach’, the so called multiracial approaches. This can lead to the particular race experiencing problems receiving little or no attention. It makes no sense to plan to remedy a focuses, race specific problem with a race blind strategy. In this way, the gender concept demonstrates that it has neither the capacity nor mechanism, to bring about change into the lives of women. In fact, a critical analysis of West and Fenstermaker (2002), West and Zimmerman (2002) exposes how much gender as a category is incompatible with a theory of change (Deutsch 2007, 108).
Evidently, when one engages what is really happening on the ground in Malawi, the price of engaging gender driven strategies like the MGDS becomes very painfully real. The kind of gender inequality that Malawi leaves under is not very clear. One cannot end that which they have not even identified. Moreover, the factors that inform the kind of gender inequality of Malawi, remain hidden, safe from any efforts to attack, curb and end them. If one is to develop ways to work with women living in a patriarchal communities like the ones in Malawi, there is need for strategies that name and call out the patriarchy so that Malawian researchers can interrogate it as concept, know how its nuances and mutations. We need strategies that engage the issue of gender and power, one that centers issues of power like Malawi feminist agency. It is clear that gender strategies are not up to this task. They are developed from a position of gender parity, one that does not even recognise that in Malawi, one gender (the male) defines itself as the one that is more powerful than the other. In many ways, the gender concept has an uphill struggle to engage Malawian women meaningfully and be an engine for ways to improve their lives.
Clearly, the MDGS gender driven approach does not understand why women are in the predicament they are in. It does not understand the concepts, institutions and processes that combine to problematise the lives of women in Malawi. Indeed, the gender driven MGDS cannot help improve the lives of Malawian women because its assumption of parity of the genders, makes it ‘do’ gender inequality instead of undoing it.

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