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Navigating Identities in Malawi

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Compared to the United States, there is little infrastructure or services in Malawi to accommodate individuals with disabilities. However, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

The law in Malawi prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, but the law is not enforced consistently. Social acceptance of persons with disabilities by the public is not as prevalent as in the United States.

Expect accessibility to be limited in public transportation, lodging, communication/information, and general infrastructure. Some modern buildings may have wheelchair accessible entrances. Generally, public transportation is not accessible for travelers with disabilities.

The Disability Act of 2013 prohibits discrimination in education, health care, social services, the workplace, housing, political life, and cultural and sporting activities for persons with disabilities. However, the Government of Malawi has yet to adopt standards and plans for its enforcement and implementation.

Gender role considerations

There are distinct roles and responsibilities that men and women are expected to fulfill based on the social norms of Malawian culture. These binary gender norms may be considered “traditional” by most Americans. Volunteers may experience very conservative attitudes regarding gender equality. As such, the behaviors of Volunteers identifying or presenting as women may be more culturally scrutinized than those of their peers identifying or presenting as men.

Culturally, women and men in Malawi are expected to marry and have children. Volunteers should expect curiosity regarding their marital status and whether or not they have children.

It will be important to consider the cultural nuances of gender roles in Malawi. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You will then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in Malawi and how these gender roles will influence your work—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to the projects you work on with your Malawian counterparts.

Learn about some Volunteers’ experiences with gender roles in Malawi:

LGBTQI+ considerations

LGBTQI+ Volunteers must be discreet about sexual orientation and/or gender identities within Malawi and should explore the safety and integration implications (with the support of staff if needed) prior to sharing these parts of their identity with community members.

In Malawi, LGBTQI+ persons are denied, by law and practice, basic civil, political, social, and economic rights. Consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison, including hard labor. The penal code outlaws “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males.” Same-sex sexual activity may also be prosecuted as “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.”

As of July 2014, the government has implemented a moratorium on the enforcement of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity, though the general public largely remains hostile to LGBTQI+ persons.

Generally speaking, LGBTQI+ Volunteers in Malawi indicate they feel they can be open with other Volunteers as well as some staff members, and that they are able to identify support mechanisms and networks outside of their host community.

To learn more about the experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers who identify as LGBTQI+, read the stories below:

  1. Serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer Altered My Outlook
  2. How to Find Your Voice and Your Other Half in Two and a Half Years
  3. Vulnerability is Not a Weakness: Breaking the Silence Around Mental Health

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Black/African American Volunteers may be mistaken for citizens of Malawi or other African nations, or they may encounter instances of subtle or even blatant discrimination.

Asian American Volunteers of Indian descent may be expected to speak the local language (Chichewa) fluently as there is a significant population of Indians who have lived and worked in Malawi for generations.

White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and locals who may not have the same experience will be important as a Volunteer. One such privilege may be not having their U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American, while many Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention, including less privacy, as well as greater expectations around giving financial and other gifts more often because of this aspect of their identity.

Peace Corps staff are committed to providing support, guidance, and resources for all Volunteers with racial and ethnic diversity considerations who experience such challenges.

To learn more about the experiences of Volunteers related to perceptions of race and ethnicity in Malawi, read the stories below:

Age considerations

Volunteers over the age of 50 may find their age an asset in Malawian culture, aiding their ability to integrate with co-workers, parents, elders, and village leadership.

Pre-service training may be stressful for older trainees, whose learning styles may or may not lend themselves to the teaching techniques used.

Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to the Peace Corps context after having worked for many years in a very structured job, or they may find it frustrating to seek approval and permission for things like travel.

Peace Corps Malawi staff are ready to support Volunteers of all ages in training and during service in their communities.

To learn more about the experiences of older Volunteers in Malawi, read the stories below:

Religious considerations

Most Malawians practice a religion. Volunteers will likely find the Malawian way of practicing religion different from that in the United States. Volunteers will notice how deeply religion is ingrained into the culture by the everyday conversations they hear or things they see.

Malawians are very tolerant of religions different from their own. Although Malawi is a mostly Christian nation, there is also a large Muslim population.

Volunteers may choose to share or be private about their own religious beliefs, depending on the circumstances. (Religious proselytizing, however, is not permitted in the Peace Corps.) Regardless, many find that one of the easiest ways of meeting people in their communities or becoming integrated is by going to a local service, of any denomination, with neighbors or co-workers.

Traditional religious beliefs are also practiced in Malawian villages. Topics like witchcraft, magic, curses, traditional medicine, and initiation ceremonies will likely come up during your service. This can be a great opportunity for cultural exchange.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Marriage is a valued aspect of Malawian society, and cisgender, heterosexual married Volunteer couples may experience an affirming sense of validation for their relationship.

Volunteer couples may also experience challenges within the cultural context. Unmarried Volunteer couples typically present themselves as married due to the social stigma of cohabitating outside of marriage.

Traditional gender norms in Malawi may also present a challenge to Volunteer couples who find that gendered expectations to behave certain ways or do certain chores are different to what they are accustomed to in the United States.

Couples may be asked whether or not they have children.

It is helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to different genders in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be adjusted may help reduce stress for you both.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Staff members collaborate with and seek input from Volunteers on various ICDEIA efforts to make training and programming more effective and appropriate.