A Woman's Place

Malawian women with colorful skirts gather to welcome new Trainees outside of a school house
By Mady Hughes
Sept. 10, 2018

I was raised in a progressive household in a progressive country by progressive parents who fought to afford me the best opportunities possible. 

I acknowledged the presence of my situational privilege quite often throughout my life, and felt that I had devoted a sufficient amount of time and energy to understanding the advantages of living in a country like the United States, a country where feminism has a massive, growing platform and is openly discussed over dinner, on the news, in elections, and wherever else you can imagine talking about the strife of women.

Don’t get me wrong, surely there is a certain stigma attached to the word feminism in the United States, but the sheer number of advocates for the idea give it a well-defined, well-heard platform in society. In the US, it was important to me to consider feminism not on a solely Americentrist level, but rather to engage myself in the empathetic consideration of other cultures, countries, and ethnicities and their relationship with the concept of feminism and gender equality.

It wasn’t until I moved to Malawi, however, that feminism assumed a very different space in my life and in my thoughts. I hesitate to say that my feminism used to exist in the peripheral, but it certainly didn’t affect my life in the way it does here. In this small, developing country in southeastern Africa, I have been forced to confront gender issues in an entirely new light.

Malawi’s relationship with gender equality is a tenuous one, to say the least. Ranking 170 out of 188 on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index and having the eighth highest child marriage rate in the world, Malawi has historically struggled to view gender equality as a priority. Socially, the attitudes surrounding gender are conservative—women are expected to perform household duties and allow men to assume the responsibilities of decision-making and breadwinning. Girls are more likely to drop out of school to get married, have children, and take on responsibilities at home, leading to a significantly lower literacy rate among women (59% of women in Malawi can read and write compared to 79% of men).

Additionally, women’s health and family planning has historically been an overwhelmingly sensitive topic, further deprioritizing women’s issues in the country. Given its status as a former colony and one of the most impoverished nations globally, I can understand where feminism has fallen off the radar and taken a backseat to more immediate and pressing issues like hunger, HIV/AIDS prevention, and establishing a sustainable economy. A nation must lay down a foundation before it can build up.

Fast forward forty-eight years of independence, three presidents, and the adoption of a multi-party democracy to the year 2012 wherein Malawi sees its first female president, Joyce Banda. Exciting legislation was passed in 2013, in which the Gender Equality Act of Malawi sought to ensure that women are visibly participating, being assisted, and are supported in the economic, political, and social arenas of society.

This represents a bold step taken to redress the effects of gender inequality present throughout the country. Currently, 32 women serve in the parliament of Malawi, equating to a 16.7% female representation rate in government. In an attempt to increase this percentage, the Special Law Commission of Malawi proposed a provision to the constitution that, if passed, would create 28 automatic seats for women in parliament. Although similar quota systems have proven effective in neighboring countries like South Africa, Mozambique, and Uganda, the provision was rejected. Nonetheless, this demonstrates a clear-cut, diligent push in the direction of gender equality and women’s empowerment; there is a voice for feminism in Malawi and it’s not shying away from the spotlight.

Women, men, and children gather together outside of a school house.
Both women and men gather to discuss village business

Feminism exists on a continuous spectrum and manifests itself differently cross-culturally, and we still have a long way to go before we achieve any semblance of gender equality in the United States, much less on a global level. It is easy to point at developing nations such as Malawi and shake our heads at the gender disparities, but the same energy should be spent developing and passing legislation to alleviate our own gender disparities, be it within government or within society broadly.

This leads me back to the aforementioned transformative view of feminism that I have been grappling with since moving to Malawi. Living in this incredible country has forced me to dive head first into all the ugly aspects of gender equality, from hearing the stories of girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy and marriage to living in a rural Malawian household for ten weeks wherein the traditional gender roles were clear-cut and heavily enforced. In my first few weeks I waded into the deep end of the pessimism pool and sorely concluded that I would exist in a world of firm, unwavering patriarchy for the entirety of my service.

Now I am three months into my 27 month tour in Malawi and have rediscovered feminism in an entirely new light. Feminism can be, and surely is within Malawi, more than women being the breadwinners of their families and having the unrestricted freedom to wear whatever they choose.

Feminism can be seen at the borehole, where women laugh and gossip, forming tightly-knit bonds to love and support one another in times of despair and lift one another up when they need it most.

Feminism can be seen in the schools, where the Head Teacher is a woman and works to implement policies and procedures to keep girls in school.

Feminism can be seen on advertisements along the main roads, urging women to go to their local health clinics and discuss family-planning options to better their health.

It is a woman observing and intervening in an uncomfortable situation with an aggressive man and it is a woman inviting me to sit near her on the bus when I’m clearly bewildered and out of place.

What I’m saying is that feminism has more faces than the ones we know and understand in the United States; Malawi has taught me that women work in persistent, oftentimes undetected, ways to ensure the quality of their future and the future of subsequent generations. They are tireless, diligent, and exceptional, and work harder in the face of adversity. I am honored to be experiencing the feminism of Malawi firsthand, and am apologetically only capturing a sliver of it.

A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be.

A black and white headshot of a young women with long hair