The Malawi Gender Justice Research Network (EmGender) is a collaborative research network of individuals and institutions who share the goal of realising a more gender just Malawi. EmGENDER applauds the work that your organisation (and many other development partners) are undertaking towards improving gender equality in Malawi generally; and, in particular your efforts to increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making positions in Malawi. These efforts are precisely the type of engagement that our members value and appreciate. As such, when you create openings for young women to take on leadership roles in Malawi, this matters to us and we take note.
When your recent advert inviting young women to take part in a leadership internship was published, our members were united in their desire to publicise the opportunity to as many deserving candidates as possible. Notably, one of EmGender’s core endeavours is to share knowledge of opportunities and vacancies, particularly those that seek to enhance the possibilities for young women to rewrite the gender narrative in Malawi. As you are aware, Malawian women face many challenges when attempting to reach their full potential. Many girls are married and have children at a tender age. Thankfully, we have a Government that is working hard to change the cultural, social, political and economic structures that perpetuate yawning gender disparities. One particular example is the body of gender justice laws that have been enacted over the past decade – the most recent of which addresses that very concern of child marriages. We have a Constitutional Bill of Rights that prohibits discrimination; and an Employment Act that echoes this commitment to equity in the workforce. All of these are values that your institution, your government and your Norwegian constituents strongly support and espouse. We know that as a country Norway values gender equality as well as child protection.
Imagine then our dismay when we read the requirements listed for those women who would seek to step forward, apply and take part in your leadership programme: “Applicants should be single young women…” Hoping that this statement was merely the result of an oversight or unfortunate wording, one of our members emailed to inquire as to the veracity and reasoning behind the request and requirement that applicants be “single.” The probe was met with a confirmation that the internship was meant only for those young women who are not burdened with the time-consuming factors of a husband and or children, since past experiences with such interns had proved that these women were often distracted by their familial responsibilities.
We must consider the impact that such a statement and such a stance might have on the young Malawian woman who not only has accomplished the fierce task of attaining a tertiary education BUT has also taken on the Constitutionally protected (and deeply gendered) role of being a spouse and/or a parent. If we were to step into her shoes for a moment and imagine her reaction to an advert that ostensibly denounces everything she has achieved and punishes her for also taking on the socially expected role of caretaker/homemaker… Are we to understand that the young woman who is not “single” cannot become a leader? That a young mother has no meaningful role to play in the advancement of Malawian society? That caring for an ailing child or spouse is not a valid reason to be called away from an internship? The request, and the reasoning behind it, exudes a lack of nuanced understanding of gender roles in society. Incidentally even a “single” young woman could find herself in a place where she has to care for family members.
That single word (pun intended) flies in the face of everything that Malawians strive to achieve –
- the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi prohibits discrimination in any form (s.20(1)) and further stipulates that women have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender or marital status; discrimination in work affairs is explicitly prohibited (s.24); the Constitutional principles of national policy call upon the State to progressively achieve gender equality (s.13(a)) and to protect the family as a fundamental and vital social unit (s.13(i)); the Constitution also protects the rights of all persons to freely engage in economic activities (s.29), to develop (s.30), and to fair labour practices (s.31);
- The Employment Act spells out and gives life to the Constitutional principles, s.5 provides that: “No person shall discriminate against any … prospective employee on the grounds of … marital or other status or family responsibilities in respect of recruitment, training, promotion, terms and conditions of employment, termination of employment or other matters arising out of the employment relationship.”
- The Gender Equality Act (2013) categorically prohibits sex discrimination (s.4) and further underlines the principle that every person has the right to access training (s.14).
According to these many protections that Malawians have put into law, we are a nation that believes in the capacity of all young women (including those who are wives and/or mothers) to become leaders. Those young women who have the added responsibility of caring for their families have already demonstrated that they are leaders and they should be celebrated for showing other young people that being a spouse or a parent does not prevent anyone from being a leader. Your organisation is surely aware of the social realities of your applicant pool and ought to understand that limiting such opportunities to so-called “single” women is discriminatory. Furthermore, such a limitation is unconstitutional, objectionable and untenable in this (or any) open and democratic society.
Accordingly, EmGender calls upon you to revise the conditions of this call for applicants and open the internship opportunity to young degree-holding women, irrespective of their marital, familial or other status. Women around the globe continue to experience widespread discrimination and inequality in the workplace and still shoulder responsibility for most unpaid care work. As partners in the quest to advance gender justice and gender equality in Malawi, we ALL need to change the narrative that presents the “best” employee as the male stereotype of the person who comes in at 6am and leaves at 10pm. Our goal should be creating an enabling environment for all Malawians to take part equally (and with equal respect and recognition) in the workplace and in the home. We must work together to break down the barriers to full and equal participation of women in the workforce. Internationally, regionally and nationally we have acknowledged that family responsibilities shall not exclude any person from entering and remaining in the workforce. The Malawi we all want is the one where persons with family responsibilities who are employed or wish to be employed, can exercise their right to do so without being subjected to discrimination and, as far as possible, without conflict between their employment and family responsibilities.