- Malawi's gender activists were last week Tuesday advised not to fight men in their attempt to address the gender disparities existing in the country. Male politicians felt gender activists were always trying "to pick a fight with all the men." This was said at a public debate organised by the Lilongwe Press Club, in the Malawian capital.
Luis Chimango, Member of Parliament from Malawi's capital Lilongwe, was asked by Head of Malawi Gender Trainers Team, Bright Sibale, to say something on the raging issue. He pleaded with the activists not to fight against the men. "By the end of the day we are all born of a woman," he said.
The parliamentarian added that it was very wrong for Malawi's gender activists to always pick a fight with all the men, all the time, when they experience problems with just a few of them. "If there is a problem in one corner, we don't have to say all men are like this," protested Mr Chimango.
The participants at the debate demanded that the two guest speakers - Women, Child Welfare and Community Services Minister Joyce Banda and Chairperson of NGO Gender Network Emma Kaliya - describe the difference between feminism and gender equality as well as explain what sexism is.
Ms Kaliya said gender equality is the need for socially constructed laws, which promote equality between men and women, while feminism is a radical promotion and advancement of women's interests, a stand she described as encouraging saying she finds nothing wrong with it, "because it is a human right". Ms Kaliya, who was under the belief that sexism is all about being a man or woman, said "sexism is the biological differences when one is born a woman and another a man."
However, according to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 'sexism' is the belief that one sex is not as good, cleverer, etc., as the other, especially when this results in unfair treatment of women by men, while 'feminism' is an activity supporting the principle that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.
Most of the participants at the Lilongwe gender debate complained that they were never given the floor to advance their argument that the foundation upon which the country's activists wage their war against gender inequality is more feministic oriented than gender equality based.
Trying to justify that the fight is a 'gender' one, Ms Kaliya argued: "No woman here is demanding things from without. We are demanding things that are put in the constitution like sections 13, 20 and 24. There is no way one should ask questions like: 'Is gender equality relevant?'"
The situation analysis of poverty in Malawi indicates that in 1985, women constituted 16 percent of the formal wage employment. The situation has not changed much over the years. The implication has been low representation of women in decision-making positions like, for example in 1999, out of the 193 MPs only 17 were female and four of the 28 cabinet ministers while the judiciary had only two women for judges out of a total 18.
Ms Kaliya said Malawi is succeeding, but at a snail's pace. She cited 2004 as a year that the country achieved 8.8 percent parliamentary representation which figure has now risen to 14.4 percent with the current parliament, although this is still less than half of the SADC recommended 30 percent women's representation.
- In most instances the movement has been one step forward and two steps backward, according to Ms Kaliya. "We have not performed well and there is so much more that we could have done," she concedes.
Currently, adult female literacy is still only estimated at 17 percent in Malawi, while their male counterparts stand at 52 percent, according to UNDP statistics from their recent Human Development Index.
Ms Kaliya recalls that in September 1996 as activists, they discussed about bills like Domestic Violence Bills as well as Wills and Inheritance Bill and men participants at the function scoffed at them, accusing them of trying to take advantage.
Minister Joyce Banda complained that the electoral system Malawi uses -of putting persons to compete instead of political parties - is contributing to the under-achieving of the 30 percent SADC requirement unlike in Rwanda, which has achieved a 50 percent due to its different style electoral system.
- We are taking the Domestic Violence bill, Family Law, and Wills and Inheritance Act to parliament for debate, the Malawian Minister revealed. "I am doubtful that the Domestic Violence one will pass, but we shall take it there nonetheless. With the Family Law there is no doubt it will pass because it deals with the inequalities of both men and women," said Ms Banda in reference to the patriarchal dominance in the assembly.
She said the scenario is like this because of the rigidity of the mindset of most men, which is refusing to change.
Referring to the current parliamentary fight over Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika's appointment of Mary Nangwale as the country's new Police Inspector General, Ms Banda said the fight now is of men against women through women.
She said when they were voting on Ms Nangwale, some party zealots took women voters from constituents where women MPs come from and made them sit on the parliamentary balcony to keep an eye on them to see who they were going to vote for. "Men are worse than women when it comes to pulling each down," the Minister said.
South Africa's High Commissioner to Malawi, Ntshadi Tsheole, decried the tendency of women who mentally turn into gender-benders the moment they assume positions of authority: "Women who acquire positions of authority automatically become men in their mindset. It is therefore incumbent upon women who are already empowered to be activists in empowering women," she pleaded.
Other speakers said it was unfair to say that since women are in the majority in the country at 52 percent, they must uplift each other. Petty jealousies often lead to them pulling each down. Others argued that of this percentage, only 26 percent are literate and therefore can not make independent decisions. There was general consensus that Malawi should do much more to address the gender imbalances existing and that the fight for equality should not be blamed on men alone.
The enemy, it was agreed is not men alone, although the solution to achieve full gender participation in the development of the nation has to be fought on all fronts. Women too can be their own worst enemy, the Malawian forum noted.
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