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My King and I



Mrs Nyasulu is a single mother , working in Lilongwe. Through selling telephone credit she put her son through university. The low in take rates of UNIMA meant that her son didnt now secure a place. Photo by Trevor Chikakheni (c)

We look for balance in our lives everyday. Most of the decisions we make will have us consciously or subconsciously make a decision with the aim of finding the right balance. Do we increase the interest rates to now encourage savings and curb the inflation? Or should I work or watch netflix? That might depend on whether I have put in too many hours at work already and really need some down time. It’s all a balancing act. Every day in pursuit of that sweet spot! Have you found the right balance?

I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit this year. What I love about travelling is meeting new people and especially realising that what you believed to be the truth is not necessarily universal. This of-course presents some challenges but there is a richness that a diversity of ideas brings to the table. This year I have also had the fortunate pleasure of being part of a group that works to address an imbalance – specifically gender disparities in Malawi. EmGender  is an organisation that works in the area of advocacy to raise issues on gender disparity and through its blog brings to light the everyday day struggles women face due to an imbalance in power dynamics. Their work highlights challenges that are a plight for women in Malawi but am sure a burden borne by women worldwide. EmGender’s work also speaks into a space that so many African women wrestle with – take for instance the blog by tendayigrowsthings  titled “A successful woman is her own man” which examines this imbalance of expectations and the rigidity in the role assigned to the sexes based on society’s gender mapping. I too have documented extensively in my blog, adevelopinghuman, of my experience of working and living in patriarchal societies.  Challenging this as a status-quo is a value I hold very dear to my heart.

Before this year, I had a very narrow view of the divergent challenges that are present in a patriarchal society. I always thought the challenges were because of hierarchy placed between sexes. With abuse of power and institutional biases seeing the woman undervalued in the workplace and in the household . I am now  asking whether the cultural practices as we know them now, if not abused,  would actually serve a purpose? Also, and more importantly, to what degree women have a part to play in reinforcing  the imbalances that place women at a disadvantage.

I use Malawi and Nigeria to explore the benefits which can be seen when gender roles are defined by culture but also explore how these very practices when abused (by men and women equally) mainly serve to undermine women.


In Malawi (specifically amongst the northern ethnic group called the Tumbuka), when a bride/wife is referring to her husband she says Mfumu wane which translates into “My King” with the marriage taking a pseudo-monarchy structure. Such that, for example, when the couple attend engagement parties, family gatherings, funerals etc, this can be observed  when the woman will tend to the needs of her husband making sure he has food brought to him,  has a comfortable place to sit/sleep etc.  I would go so far as to say that in this setting, her primary responsibility is her husband and not her male relatives. He is her king!

This also plays out in how the couple makes decisions, what the couple have decided is the final decision. My husband and I have decided   pretty much brings the issue at hand to a close. The “monarchy” brings about an expectation of sovereignty.

Additionally, how the husband or wife interacts with his/her in-laws is also very much governed by this understanding with one spouse playing the role of mediator between their spouse and  their family. On account of the emphasis the northern culture places on the sovereignty of a couple, the relationship between in-laws is often times very distant.  My mum once explained to me that because of the fragility of the in-law relationship it is by design that communication is kept distant to avoid conflict and that any maturity in said relationship is kept organic.

What could go wrong? This reads like a foolproof plan, in place to protect the sanctity the marriage, or is it?

What is evident here is the absence of the queen and the undefined role of the King. When referring to the queen, she is mfumu kazi – Female king.  The language has not been extended to have a word for a queen. She is a mere derivative of her husband. Her role is very clearly defined but if you drill down to the details her function is to ensure that her king is supported. The lack of acknowledgement in the vocabulary and the stiff enforcement by society that she adheres to her role often sees the value of the woman undermined.

This asymmetry can also be seen in how loosely defined the mfumu’s duties are. Aside from the provision of funds it’s a struggle to think of what is expected of the King.  What else should society expect from the king? I would argue   that the lack of clear  , more defined exception of what is expected from the King leads to men not being held accountable for anything other than provision of a pay-check. Is having just the one indicator for success a true measure of their worth?


I recently went to Nigeria  and got to meet a lot of my in-laws. In the west-African heat , wrapped in fine cotton traditional garments I became acquainted with the reality of “Our Wife”.

I had previously stumbled on this concept when we had just gotten married and we went to visit my husband’s uncles. They would give me some money and mentioned that I was “their wife”, its a tradition amongst their clan as a “welcome to the family”. I felt really welcomed and loved. My in-laws talked to me freely and celebrated my marriage very openly. This was a stark contrast to the relationship my husband had with my family, as newlyweds my mum kept her distance for reasons mentioned earlier. There have been times, I wish we could speed-up “the getting to know you process” but I respect her position and this is a practice that is familiar to me.

So at this recent family gathering, everyone called me “our wife”. I walked in blindly unaware of what this meant in this cultural context. It came with its demands and the most obvious contrast with my culture was that instead of me being a queen to my husband , It felt like I was accountable to all my in -laws. I was everyone’s wife! On one hand I am able to talk freely with everyone but it also carries with it the burden of serving too many masters.

As a new member of the family I can call on any of my husband’s family but on the other hand there are issues that I am only really comfortable discussing with my husband alone. How does one find the balance? Unlike the Malawian culture, here the tension comes when as a new member one feels overwhelmed and unprepared. How do you strike a balance between being respectful (we all want to get along, right?) and communicating a position that is in opposition to the “norm”

What do women want?

In both Malawi and Nigeria I have observed that  women play a part in reinforcing these gender roles in the family. It is often the case in Malawi where women will sit down with a young bride to tell her of her role to meet the demands of her “King”. Independence can sometimes be seen as a defiance of culture with women the first to point out how being different will not get you married – see Emgender blogs* – Women can sometimes be made to feel like it is a privilege that their “King” picked them for marriage , a by-product is the lack of acknowledgement of love-less or hurtful marriages. After-all he is a good provider.

Equally, during my short experience in Nigeria, I met with female allies who treated me like family but just as strongly there was a push from some for me to carry out my  gender roles and at times go above and beyond what I found to be stretching.

Living cross-culturally

As a cross cultural couple, my husband and I are constantly working to find our sweet spot and often realise that not only is this a moving target but the tensions to adhere to our roles is compounded .We have often reverted to doing what is right for us and trying to strike a balance between what we need as a couple and how we can still interact with our cultures in a truthful way. A pressing question for us is how do we do this respectfully? Respect our union and also those around? When we have children, how will we raise our daughter to value herself for who she is and not what her multi-culture heritage defines her worth? As for our son, how can we raise him to treat women as the queens that we are?

Either as his invisible queen or as she negotiates the pressure of being “their wife”, her role is pivotal in acting as a change agent or a reinforce(r) of practices that can sometimes undermine her value.

I strongly believe that cultural practices were and still can provide a framework and guide to navigate through the myriad of expectations. I also believe when we were all of the same ethnic group, with limited migration (pre-visas) and the gender roles were rigid (hunters , gathers and child bearers) then cutting across gender lines served a function and arguably was needed for survival. With the complexity of the world today , migration of people , the evolving role of women and as a consequence the changing demands placed on the man can we still afford to say “Its our culture and that’s how we have always done it”?


What next for EmGENDER? Reflecting on 2015 and dreaming aloud about 2016.


Season’s Greetings dear EmGender Family and Friends!

I hope that you are staying safe during the festive season. I have managed to find a minute to reflect upon how fast the year has zipped by. Which naturally led to thinking about the coming year and what I hope to achieve with EmGender in 2016.

I have before me the piece of paper where I jotted down the notes that led to EmGender, it is a quick sketch that outlines the bare bones of my hopes, dreams and ideas for this organisation:

goals – catalyse interdisciplinary collaborative research and to provide information, case studies and resources to help researchers; to act as a springboard for grant applications and joint scholarship; to encourage, create and maintain researcher profiles: a database of gender justice researchers and their specialities; fostering real collaboration and collegiality; creating a space for feminist voices/research/writing/thinking/discussion; AND to work towards gender justice in Malawi.

That was September 2014. The very next day I set up this website, followed rapidly by the Facebook and Twitter accounts and I sent out an invitation for people to set up their membership profiles. over the past year and four months, EmGender has taken on a life of its own in some ways. Whilst in many other ways it remains closely tied to the original vision that I wrote on a piece of paper.

 Here are some highlights of 2015:

Our Logo!

It was a really important for me to ensure that EmGender was deliberately branded, that the logo made a strong statement about the organisation and its values. Enter the magician Joe Ruzvidzo and the development of the official logo. “At the centerpiece of our logo is an Adinkra Symbol of West Africa “BOA ME NA ME MMOA WO” which means help me and let me help you, and symbolises cooperation and interdependence. Through our logo we express the founding principles of this research network – connection, cooperation and interdependence.”

The work of EmGender members

I have been most surprised and gratified by the level of engagement from young Malawian feminists and activists. They have taken the baton and run faster and further with it than I had ever dared to hope. It is this energy that has shaped some of the work EmGender did this year. Members have written blog posts on a variety of subjects (how menstruation matters; maternal health; natural disasters and GBV; normalisation of violence in relationships; and, “Trophy” wives and the objectification of women). EmGender members (aka The Gender Justice League!) have taken up gender justice issues in new and creative ways both on and off-line. It was a member who brought our attention to the Norwegian Development Fund advertisement that only called for single women to apply for an internship – she wrote to the organisation to question the criteria and her concern led to our Open Letter, the organisation’s response and adjustment of the advert and even on-line news coverage of the issue. This was a group effort that developed with the collaboration and the input of all the members, it gave us an opportunity to think through what issues are important to EmGender. And furthermore, what actions we can and are able to take on through our collaboration.

A sister organisation!

Other work that has happened this year is the birth of UgGender – The Uganda Gender Justice Research Network; a sister organisation in Kampala. I had the great fortune to attend their first event – a film and discourse session hosted at Cavendish University. Keep a lookout for their on-line presence in 2016!

Surveys and social networking

I originally believed that the web page would be the lifeblood of EmGender – which is essentially organised as a digital organisation. This hasn’t been true for 2015. The (members only) WhatsApp group, the FB page and the twitter account have provided a platform for multi-faceted engagement. The mobile messaging app has allowed for a high degree of connectivity between members, whilst the social networking sites have allowed for broad access and input beyond the members. EmGender now has almost two thousand followers across the social networks.  People often comment on and react to the posts that are made. It is also the primary means that we have utilised for sharing opportunities/calls for papers/jobs/scholarships etc. The social network has also been extremely important for gathering data – over the year there have been surveys on #revengeporn, the Maputo Protocol and #GBV. The revenge porn results will contribute to a paper on the issue; the survey on the protocol have been incorporated into a chapter on Malawi for the Pretoria University Law Press publication: The Impact of the African Charter and the Women’s Rights Protocol in Selected African States. The results from the GBV survey were published on-line during the #16DaysofActivismAgainstGBV.  The poignant and often painful contributions from those who took the time to share their truths provided a deeply personal context for the #16days campaign.

Whoo 2015 has been a busy year! It has been engaging and enlightening; a steep learning curve for me and a resounding affirmation that EmGender matters. Thank you to each and every one of you who participated in this journey – EmGender could easily fall into the trap of simply being an ephemeral internet bit of fluff, the only way that it remains real and relevant is through the contributions of the members, the readers, the followers and the friends. Basically YOU.

So, what next for 2016? Lets dream BIG…

Around this time in 2014, I listed a bunch of goals for 2015. Some of those are still a work in progress including registration, research, funding and re-imagining membership.

All the legalities…

It is certainly time that the legal stuff got sorted out. So at some point in 2016 we need to get the registration sorted out. This is no simple undertaking – it requires deep, strategic, and forward thinking. How do we build an organisation that lasts and grows, something that lives longer (and larger) than its founder? How do we divorce an organisation from the personalities that created it and make sure that its ownership is deeply rooted so that it can branch out but stay strong, bend with the times but not break…. See my plight?

The research output

This year has been about growing in numbers and establishing a voice. Now we need to put our minds to research – both the development of evidence based research as well as the collection and curating of resources for researchers.  In this effort I am guided by this saying: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” We need to tell our gender justice story in our own voices.


Well at some point we are going to have to generate money, sustainability demands it and so does growth. the key will be to find the balance between financial strings, independence and integrity. EmGender is not about making money, it is about fostering connections. But some of the activities to enhance the research and networking objectives will need to be bankrolled. So let’s dream big!

Time to wrap this up (I have kept going for waaaay longer than I intended when I sat down at the computer)! As always I want to end with a reiteration of my gratitude for your support and to wish you all the very best for the new year. The biggest dream of all is that we create and live in a more just Malawi!

peace & love,




Natural Disasters: An avenue for increased violence against women and girls. #16daysOfactivism #GBV #VAW #NaturalDisastersandGBV

Mr. Ajay Madiwale of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation speaking at the 57th session of the commission on the status of women on 11th March 2013 in New York said, and I quote,

While we have paid needed attention to violence in armed conflict, and must continue to do so, the same focus has been lacking in situations of natural disasters. Every year, natural disasters disrupt the lives of more than 200 million people, the majority of them women and girls. Among the often hidden impacts of disaster, is the devastation caused by the gender-based violence that often follows. The evidence shows that in disaster after disaster, violence increases, including domestic and sexual violence. This violence occurs in camps, in shelters, in homes, and on the streets. The effect of such violence is not limited to the devastating physical and mental impact on its victims. Instead, this violence also has social and economic repercussions for individuals, families and the entire affected community. It is not an issue we can afford to overlook. As we face the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters, we need to simultaneously scale up our efforts to prevent violence.”

These are sentiments I share wholly. Earlier this year, on a humanitarian quest and as co-founder of Each 1-Reach 1 a flood relief mobilization campaign, I found myself somewhere down in Chikwawa at one of the camps where the 2015 flood victims sought refuge. Tidzola II Camp, home to about 246 displaced households many of them; women and girls. I couldn’t help by ask myself, what experiences these women and girls go through? Are they not abused in any way? It was a relief to find out that the UN and many various organizations had taken a number of steps towards the elimination of gender based violence (GBV) among the flood victims. We visited one of the tents that was said to be ‘a safe space’ where the women and girls would take time off from the group and enjoy some recreational activities. One of the chiefs we spoke to also assured us that some general sensitization activities were conducted to reduce cases of violence.

Though I did not hear first-hand of any cases of GBV the UN reported one such case (http://www.mw.one.un.org/un-responds-to-gender-based-violence-gbv-in-flood-affected-districts/). They tell a story of Mary, a mother of 11, who was severely beaten by her husband. She is a 3rd wife to her husband, who has several other wives and is currently living with his 7th wife. According to Mary, she was invited by a friend who has a house near Jombo camp to go and eat some food. They were four women eating together but soon after the meal, her husband who was not living with her in the camp suddenly appeared with a knife in his hand and started beating her severely. He accused her of having affairs and sleeping around in the camp. Mary’s screams for help were heard in the camp by a group of young men who were playing football at a nearby school ground. They apprehended her husband but before they could take him away from Mary, he forcefully bashed his head against Mary’s forehead and this caused a very deep cut on her forehead. Mary’s husband was arrested by the Camp Police and taken to the Chikwawa District Police Station where he was kept on remand overnight. Mary was taken to Montfort Catholic Private Hospital where she failed to pay MK 4, 500 ($10) to have her wound sutured and she was only given some pain killers and kept overnight. In the morning she was referred to the Project Hunger Clinic where she received free treatment and was discharged. Mary was later met by the UNFPA gender based violence Coordinator in the camp for counselling and support. By then, her husband had been released because Mary had decided not to press charges. She explained that she made this decision because she is afraid that if he goes to prison he may kill her when he is released.

Ahem!!!!! Your reaction is the same as mine!!

‘Global warming,’ ‘climate change’ and ‘natural disaster’ are ‘terms’ we throw around every day. It is important to take a step forward and realize that the effects of global warming and climate change have increased in frequency and intensity and the effects through various natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods etc. do indeed increase vulnerabilities and give way to increased risks of GBV.

As we commemorate International Day for the elimination of violence against women and girls the need to protect women and girls in situations of natural disaster cannot be overemphasized. The UN and many other organizations should be acclaimed for the job well done in reducing GBV risks and incidents in the camps during the 2015 floods. However, this is something that calls for collective action; WE MUST JOIN HANDS IN COMMITTING TO IDENTIFY, MITIGATE, REDUCE AND EVENTUALLY TERMINATE THE RISK OF ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS IN SITUATIONS OF NATURAL DISASTER.

Decision-makers in government and in humanitarian organizations, as well as donors, need to commit the necessary financial and human resources to prevent and respond to violence in disasters.  Working in partnerships, we can draw on community strengths and capacities, including the engagement of men and boys, to identify, mitigate, and reduce the risk of violence. All actors in a disaster response have a role to play in addressing the problem, and by adopting an evidence-based public health approach, we can monitor, prevent and respond to violence in natural disasters.” –Mr. Ajay Madiwale.

#16daysOfactivism #GBV #VAW #NaturalDisastersandGBV

The Development Fund of Norway (Utviklingsfondet) in Malawi response to the #OpenLetter

EmGender has just received this response:

We would like to acknowledge receipt of your open letter sent to us, today, November 2, 2015 in view of the use of the term “single” in our advert for the Young Women Internship Scheme (YWIS) being implemented by ourselves in Malawi.

We fully agree that being “single” is an unacceptable criteria for being considered in a position, be it as an intern or in a permanent post. We thank you for bringing this to our attention and we have removed it from the advert. Marital status does not and shall not have any impact on employment opportunity in Development Fund of Norway.

The Development Fund of Norway is still committed to promoting gender equality and ensuring that young and older women are given the much-needed platform and space to unleash their potential and exercise their skills without let or hindrance. This is clearly exemplified in the type of work that we do. For instance, you will note that all our current Programmes in Malawi explicitly state that 50% of our beneficiaries will be women and girls.

Going forward, we regret the use of the term “single” and will not use the same in our future adverts. We will also re-advertise the internship where the term “single” will not feature.
We would also like to thank you for observing this anomaly in our advert and we will be pleased to receive further feedback from you in future.
Yours sincerely,

Thor Oftedal
Country Director

As mentioned in our #OpenLetter, opportunities like these are essential to shifting the gender narrative in Malawi, and indeed around the world. EmGender continues to applaud the efforts of the Development Fund of Norway (and all our other development partners) to create spaces for our young people to develop – particularly women and girls. It is gratifying to know that the advert will be changed to accommodate all eligible candidates, regardless of their marital or parental status.

An open letter to the Development Fund of Norway (Utviklingsfondet) in Malawi

Dear Colleagues.

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.


@EmGENDER to be curated by #CarolMakoko, her theme: cultural practices which perpetrate gender injustices

from 520 001~2

EmGender Member, Carol Tendal Makoko will be curating the social networking sites for one week (20-27 July). Carol is in her third year of law and this is her favourite quote on gender equality:

“Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance” ~ Kofi Annan

Carol writes:

Well…. before I studied my Customary Law, I used to think that Gender justice is easily attainable. At this point, I stand with a different view. Why do I say so? Like any other society in the world, Malawi is governed by a culture whose beliefs, values, customs and a host of social practices have a powerful influence on community life. Culture is indeed very important for national identity, however, in most cases, these cultural/ social practices have been used to preserve certain gender roles and Stereotypes that may still perpetrate gender injustices in certain communities. One afternoon, my late Grandma said to me, “atsikana inu mwakula ofunika kuchinamwali (you girls are all grown now, it’s about time we took you to an initiation ceremony)”. At this point all I knew about these ceremonies was hearsay and I never actually got to go to one (mainly because grandma passed on before she could get us to go to one). Sitting in a customary law class I got to hear the “chinamwali” concept again. It is here, that I learnt about what this ceremony entails (but let me not preempt this week’s discussion). In Malawi there are different cultural practices that infringe on the rights of individuals and groups of people, and studies have shown that the practices such as “chinamwali” encourage sexual intercourse for initiates and infringe on a number of rights of the girls and women. This week (Tuesday-Thursday) I will share with you some of the cultural practices in Malawi as per the Malawi Human Rights Commission Report on “Cultural Practices and their impact on the enjoyment of Human Rights, Particularly the rights of Women and Children in Malawi” and we can all share our personal experiences and perhaps bring to light the advantages and disadvantages of these practices. And on Friday we are going to be answering the question “should these cultural practices be maintained, modified or eliminated? And how best the Gender injustices these cultural practices perpetrate can be dealt with, bearing in mind the cultural state of Malawi as a nation.”

Carol looks forward to curating the social pages this week. Taking advantage of #EmGENDER’s interactive platform!

@EmGENDER to be curated by @BeingUpile

1150294_614548155243614_176787104_nEmGENDER Member Upile will be curating our social networking (Twitter and Facebook) for the rest of this week. We look forward to her take on relevant #GenderJustice issues. #InCaseYouMissedIt take a minute and read her guest post on maternal health on Likoma Island!

Meanwhile the #EmGENDERsurvey on #RevengePorn in Malawi has just been closed. With 100 participants the results should be quite fascinating and a report will be published as soon as possible. Thank you to everyone who took the time to complete the survey. Those of you who are still interested in the issue, don’t worry – this was the first stage in a research process that is meant to be as participatory and inclusive as is feasible. There will be other opportunities to #HaveYourSay. Or you can take this opportunity to complete and submit the online membership form and stay connected to the other EmGENDER members!


@BeingUpile’s Conversations on maternal health. Conversation 1: Personal Autonomy

Conversations between women

I am extremely fascinated by the bonds between women. As a little girl I would cheekily eavesdrop on my aunts and mother’s conversations. I remember lingering around my older sisters long enough to ‘accidentally’ overhear something I shouldn’t have. Though I loved the bulk of the gist, it was the exchange of advice and opinions about exclusively female experiences that drew me in – what women tell women about things only women experience. Last year, my curiosities lead me to Likoma Island where I interviewed mothers and health workers about maternal health (I finally used my nosiness for some good).

Maternal health on Likoma Island, Malawi


Maternal health refers to the medical attention women receive during pregnancy, childbirth and after birth. And the lack of ‘proper’ or ‘adequate’ maternal health care may lead to complications or fatalities. The World Health Organization will tell you that up to 99% of all maternal deaths occur in the developing world with up to 50% of those deaths occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa (Maternal Mortality Fact Sheet, 2014). To add salt to injury, the UN and the WHO explain that many of these deaths are preventable. In attempts to improve these stats the UN set goals for Member States to meet by 2015 (ummm, this year) known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). MDG 5A is to improve maternal health by reducing maternal mortality. The 2014 MDG progress report below shows the maternal mortality ratio in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, 2000 and 2013 (Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, women aged 15–49). The green line is where we are meant to be (umm, this year).



In Malawi, UNICEF states that the risk for women dying a maternal death is 1 in 36 (Fund, 2013). Clearly, there are health disparities between the Global North and the Global South but even amongst the underprivileged there are those who are more privileged than others. The difference in the access to quality healthcare facilities between the rural and urban areas is to say the least, a problem. I chose to study women in Likoma because I’d travelled to the island many times and wondered what it is like to be expectant and give birth in an area that is not only rural but is isolated (transport to the island is not the most reliable). With great privilege comes choices, on the island there aren’t too many choices. St.Peter’s Hospital is the only hospital on Likoma Island serving up to the 10,000 residents of the island and 70,000 people from nearby Mozambique and Tanzania (African Steps , 2014).

St. Peter’s Hospital has 10 nurses, no doctors, and 1 ambulance.

Personal Autonomy
After spending an entire semester putting all my findings into a concrete thesis paper, I learnt just how multifaceted maternal health research is. To make this paper an easier read for you (and really to keep myself from going off on tangents) I have decided to write a series of conversations on maternal health starting off with personal autonomy. Autonomy simply put means the personal rights one has and the ability to exercise them – choices. I wondered about the dynamics of the social realties of these women and what influenced the choices when it came to their maternal health. Did they, like I, eavesdrop on elder female members of their family when conversations about motherhood came up? Did they, like I, peruse through biology textbooks studying the female body? Where did they learn what they knew about pregnancy and how did this shape the choices they made when their time came?

My sample comprised of 8 tremendous women between the ages of 20 and 54 from different parts of the island (Chinyanya, Khwazi, and Ulisa). Of the women, 1 had completed secondary school, 1 had a certificate from a vocational school, and 3 had been to secondary school. Primary education is free or subsidized if you include the costs of school uniforms and books, the women cited the lack of funds to purchase these items as the reason for dropping out of school. A report on the Nkhata Bay and Likoma districts states that 3 out of 4 women in the Nkhata Bay and Likoma districts are literate and 1 in 20 women complete a secondary education (Bureau, 2014).

What knowledge prepared them for childbirth?

Previous studies have positively linked maternal education and the development of a child. When I started asking these ladies where they learnt about pregnancy and childbirth there was no mention of school. If the majority of what they remember didn’t come from school, where did they learn it? What knowledge prepared them for childbirth? From the interviews I identified four major parties that contributed to their maternal health choices: their elder female family members, health workers at St. Peter’s hospital, traditional birthing attendants and traditional healers.

All of the women mentioned some involvement of female family members in their maternal health decisions. Aunts, mothers, older sisters and female neighbors offered them advice and would be the ones to walk them to the hospital when it was time to deliver. From pregnancy to delivery. When Mary found out she was pregnant her family sat her down and told her “You are now between life and death. You have to stay strong and not cry.” One of the Chichewa words for pregnancy is pakati, which translates literally into the ‘middle’ or ‘in between’– pregnancy being the state in between life and death. Mary’s family and the families of the other mothers in this study made her cognizant of the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. Limbani’s family warned her not to cry during her pregnancy and delivery because crying could constrict the birth canal. When Beatrice’s water broke and she waited on makolo/ parents or akuluakulu or elders (women who had delivered before) to tell her to start walking. One night a pregnant Gloria was restless and saw a red stain on her panties and ran to her mother and aunts who told her it was time. When Mary fell during her pregnancy she told no one, she went home and kept going to and from the bathroom. Mary says that her aunts and her mother kept asking her if she’d fallen and she kept denying it. “I don’t know how they knew. They are wise because have given birth before. They insisted I go to the hospital.”

One of the Chichewa words for pregnancy is pakati, which translates literally into the ‘middle’ or ‘in between’– pregnancy being the state in between life and death.

Another group of individuals that influenced these women’s decisions are the highly controversial yet widely used zambas or traditional birthing attendants. Malawi stopped licensing traditional birthing attendants in 2007 in attempts to help curb maternal and infant mortality rates (Analysis, 2007). In 2011, that ban was lifted in by Dr Bingu wa Mutharika yet in Likoma mothers and zambas face fines for homebirths.Many of the women in this study showcased a reliance on traditional birthing attendants not only in making their decision as where to deliver but also as antenatal care advisors. A zamba was called when Anne started feeling labor pain. Reaching into Anne the zamba felt the baby’s hair and knew that Anne would not make it to the hospital by ambulance or by foot, so she delivered the baby. Some zambas travel from village to village advising pregnant women, other zambas attend to the women within their community and are there for them throughout the pregnancy.

It was from a zamba that Limbani says she first heard of where a baby comes from.

Wearing my chitenje around my hips and rocking a buzz cut, I tried to not look conspicuous as I observed the antenatal clinic at St. Peter’s hospital. A health worker opened each session with a prayer and then led a group of about 15 women in a few songs about self-care and childcare. I watched as the women were weighed and chaperoned from room to room with their yellow health books in their hands. It is here where the ladies undergo medical tests, are told about their condition, told about nutrition, informed about warning signs, given fansidar, iron tablets as well as mosquito nets and are asked to come in two weeks before they are due with supplies (cloths, a bucket, food, and sometimes a razor blade). The women mentioned some of the danger signs, good hygiene habits and what foods to eat that I overheard the health worker tell other mothers. Monica, a first-time mother, remembered that vaginal bleeding, a racing heartbeat, back pain, dizziness and swelling are among the danger signs and that experiencing any of these things was indication that it was time to go to the hospital. Gloria commented on how she paid close attention to what she was told at the hospital after all “They are learned, I am not. I listened to all they told me”.

Traditional medicine also played a role in the decision-making of some of these mothers.  6 of the 8 women in this study reported going to a traditional healer at some point during their pregnancy and one woman said she saw no difference between a traditional healer and a ‘skilled’ doctor. Limbani stated, “I would still go to the traditional healer even if the hospital was near by”. Those who visited a traditional healer entrusted them with treating their reproductive issues like infertility, repeated miscarriages and abnormalities in the development of the fetus. Gloria credits a traditional healer with curing her infertility. When she was pregnant Limbani could not feel her babies kicking so she went to the traditional healer who gave her chicken and tealeaves that she believes helped. Lisungu stated that after having three miscarriages she went to the traditional healer for her fifth pregnancy and the medicine he gave her resulted in her healthy son. From our conversations about traditional medicine it was clear to me that the women who endorsed traditional medicine understood that because pregnancy is a state between life and death it makes women vulnerable to outside interference that could cause problems in their pregnancy.

Talking to these women I learnt that though a majority of them did not have formal education their families, zambas, antenatal clinic visits and traditional medicine all prepared them for this exclusively female experience. When in between life and death on a rural and isolated island with limited choices mothers made due using what they had.


African Steps . (2014). Retrieved from African Steps: http://www.africansteps.org.uk

Analysis, H. N. (2007, October). MALAWI: Role of traditional birth attendants to change. Retrieved from Humanitarian News and Analysis.

Bureau, P. R. (2014, September ). Smaller Families, Healthier Families in Nkhata Bay and Likoma Districts. Retrieved from Population Reference Bureau .

Fund, U. N. (2013, December 27). UNICEF Malawi. Retrieved from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/malawi_statistics.html

Nations, U. (2009). Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015. Retrieved from United Nations: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/maternal.shtml

World Health Organization. (2014, May). Maternal Mortality Fact Sheet. Retrieved from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs348/en/

“Period Shaming” guest post by #UmbaZalira

I vividly remember when I started my periods and the time leading up to it; I had little information about my body as you can imagine a young primary school girl only aged 12. But I remember learning about it in class with a classroom half full of boys and all the male teacher said was when girls get to a certain stage they start bleeding and they bleed every month, this lesson was a nightmare for the girls in that class as you can imagine and fun for the boys. What followed were weeks on end of boys teasing and making fun of us about periods and when we were going to start how they will know each month when we are on our periods and how we cannot hide it because our hands get soft and all that. I was shocked at how much they knew about my body and ashamed at the same time of myself for knowing so little about my body. So when I finally started my periods my mum like many mothers would do in my society invited one of her older friends to come talk to me and this old woman delivered the same message which am sure most Malawian girls are familiar with. She said:  “Don’t play with boys” “Now you are a woman, you will get pregnant” “Hide it from your father” “Don’t cook this, don’t touch that” and the worst of it all this woman lied straight to my face that my father should never see my period blood or else he will go blind. This stranger suddenly taught me how to behave in my house and with my father. There was so much emphasis on how my relationship with my father had to change as I was “different” now. All this information could not be digested by my little 12-year-old immature brain. But I adjusted. I changed.

Pic 1

I remembered all this as I was doing research on period shaming for a weekly twitter conversation I host. I had never heard of the term before and during my research I stumbled upon The Period Poem   this poem was written by Dominique Christina a performance artist and activist who is also a mother to a 13-year-old daughter. The poem is a response to a tweet full of shaming menstruation which was sent by a young boy who states that he dumped his girlfriend because she started her periods while they were having sex. Dominique’s daughter sent her a munched text of the tweet. The poem is also dedicated to her daughter for whom she threw a period party when she started menstruating and all invited guests wore red, the house was decorated in red all the food and drinks were red. All red everything!

The poem is powerful, intense and profound and speaks even louder on issues that have been there from way back in history of how women are shamed, embarrassed and made to feel awkward about a natural body function. something that half the population experiences at some point in their life and have no control over. something as natural as breathing. A monthly reminder of the power women’s bodies have to recreate and give life. yet still in the 21st century period shaming exists. Period shaming does not only exist in my society or the most rural villages in Africa it cuts across borders, religion, race and color. The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some ethnic groups are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods and there are health issues connected to this, like infections caused by using dirty rags. There is the story of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it; the subsequent infection meant her uterus had to be removed when she was 13.

Lately there has been talks in the girls’ education discourse of the impact menstruation has on girls absenteeism at school and so dropping out.  There is no doubt that menstruation is associated with many physical, sociocultural, and economic challenges for school-going girls and young women in the developing world. Among them are the physical discomforts and inconveniences of menstruation, ranging from cramps to headaches; lack of access to adequate sanitary materials and toilets on school grounds; and, limited information of menstruation, which can lead to shame and poor preparation for dealing with the physical issues. Poverty plays an important role as well since most girls cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. A couple of weeks ago UNICEF Malawi (with funding from DFID under one of their WASH projects in Salima) officially opened the new toilets they built at Yambe and Mkwero community day secondary schools. the project aims to improve sanitation at schools by constructing 3 toilets per school; one for girls, one for boys and the other one  for staff members. The cost of one toilet is about MK15 million ($34,000).

Toilet 2 Toilet 1

But I wonder, in constructing girls’ only toilet in public schools, are we not as programmers perpetuating period shaming? If it is a natural body function for girls and the boys at school know this too well from their Biology class why then do we feel the need to exclude girls and make them have their own toilet? If it is a normal body function they have no control over WHY the need to hide them and add to the shame and guilt that society is already subjecting them to. The Population Council conducted a survey in Malawi to find out the connection between girls’ absenteeism and menstruation; the findings showed that nearly one-third of female students reported missing at least one day of school during their previous menstrual period. However, the data shows that menstruation accounts for only a small proportion of all female absenteeism. The lack of a gender gap in overall absenteeism underscores this finding.

Tackling the issue of period shaming should begin at home. It is after all a family issue: that is where culture and tradition are deeply rooted and manifest. It is about fathers, brothers, uncles and all men in the house being part of the period talk with the girl child; and not leaving it as another task for the mother and women in the house. as a little girl, I would have loved  for my father to have been part of my period talk. in shunning away, he was the first person that subjected me to period shaming and made me feel dirty which crushed my little heart. Because I adored my father I talked like him, picked up on his habits even wore his perfume for all of my secondary school life and part of my college life because I wanted to smell and be like him in every way. And now as my niece is about to hit puberty I hope she has a different experience than my own, I hope I will convince my in-law to be part of her period party, yes, I will throw her one. Waiting to see the shocked reaction on my mother and sisters’ faces 😉




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