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HUMAN RIGHTS-MALAWI: Violence Threatens Women’s Meagre Gains

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Feb 2 2007 (IPS) - Chanju Mwale is a true role model. Not only does the 28-year-old possess good academic credentials as a lawyer, landing her the job of the Malawi Defence Force’s legal officer, but she is also the only female officer in the force who holds the rank of captain.

All of these accolades to her name did not protect Mwale against assault. She is recovering from serious wounds to her face after she was attacked by a junior officer at an end-of-year party in 2004.

A number of scars on her face bear witness to her ordeal—a painful reminder that even before the attack she did not receive the respect that she deserves from her fellow officers and soldiers. This encumbered her in the fulfilment of her duties as a captain which involved commanding a platoon of soldiers.

‘‘The lieutenant beat me up because I refused his sexual advances. This defiance of my authority happened in the presence of some very senior officers in the army but I have not had much support from the army,’’ says Mwale.

She has had ‘‘a terrible time’’ with the injuries. Three major operations were needed. But still a defence force disciplinary hearing only awarded her 72 US dollars in compensation for the injuries. She has sought court intervention outside the army. The matter is still in the courts.

‘‘The problem is that the army is a male-dominated institution which does not take kindly to women being in high positions. The Malawi Defence Force was used to being an all-male team until 1996 when women were allowed to join the army. They just cannot accept that a woman is capable of working as hard as they do,’’ Mwale points out.

Despite everything, her encounter with the lieutenant has made her even stronger and more determined.

‘‘People thought I would leave the army following the assault as I was badly injured and got little support from my superiors but I am staying. I will work at changing the perceptions. I know it is an uphill battle but I will not tire,’’ says a resolute Mwale.

One would have thought that women like her would not have to fight so hard. After all, Malawi was seen as a leader among the Southern African Development Community (SADC) states when they adopted the regional indicative strategic development plan (RISDP) with its commitment to gender equality.

The plan committed SADC governments to achieving 30 percent representation of women in decision-making positions by 2005; and repealing gender discriminatory laws and policies and enacting laws that will guarantee substantive gender equality, also by 2005.

Relevant for Mwale’s case, heads of state also committed governments to reducing acts of violence against women with 50 percent by 2007 and eradicating all forms of violence against women by 2015.

Malawi also acceded to the United Nations’ millennium development goals (MDGs) which have tasked countries globally with promoting gender equality and empowering women. Malawi is far behind as the percentage of women recruited by the Malawi Defence Force still only stands at three percent, according to Mwale.

Malawi has also missed the RISDP’s 30 percent target. The low level of women’s representation is not only confined to the army. Of the country’s 193-member parliament only 27 are women. At cabinet level the picture looks better with 6 women out of 22 ministers but among deputy ministers only one out of 14 is a woman.

Moreover, these statistics have not improved much since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The statistics for the civil service are dismal as only five permanent secretaries out of a total of 51 are women while a mere three out of 16 diplomatic missions are headed by women. The judiciary has a paltry figure of four women judges out of 25.

A World Bank gender profile of Malawi shows some improvement in the education sector. Adult literacy among women has moved up from about 36 percent in 1990 to 54 percent at present. School enrolment of girls increased to 60 percent from 47 percent in 1990.

The youth literacy rate of females aged between 15 and 24 years has also improved from 75 percent in 1990 to the present 82 percent.

But, as Mwale’s case shows, violence against women threatens these achievements. This is true for all spheres of life. Subsistence farmer Dora Malimelo sees no reason of holding hopes that the situation will improve much for the average woman.

‘‘Violence against women is a growing tendency in this country because there is a total lack of respect for women in our community. In the past five years we have started to see ritual killings where women’s private parts are removed.’’

According to Malimelo, ‘‘domestic violence has escalated to such an extent that women are mutilated by their own husbands’’. Malawi has in recent times reported numerous cases where women are kidnapped, murdered or trafficked for prostitution and hard labour.

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