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An intern in Malawi

Thursday, April 14, 2011 - 12:32

A Blog post by Ida Klockman, a 24 year old student from Denmark who is studying her Masters Degree in International Development at Roskilde University working as an intern at ActionAid Malawi for 3 months.

You can only learn that much about development, aid, NGOs and their projects from theory and from reading about other people’s experiences on the matter. From that recognition I decided to go to Malawi as an intern in Action Aid for three months. I left Denmark during winter time, where it was minus 15 degrees and snow everywhere and went to Malawi in the middle of the rainy season, which means a lot of rain (I live in Mzuzu – you know what I mean by a lot of rain). But still I wear sandals to work every day contrary to my big winter boots back home, and that feels brilliant.

And what a decision that was. I ended up working on women’s rights in the northern region under the theme; Domestic violence against women and their access to legal justice. And wow, the women in this patriarchal part of Malawi face some serious issues. I set out to get an overall view of all levels of stakeholders in the matter, and I ended up visiting women’s groups in the districts, a Police Victim Support Unit, a magistrate, a Legal Aid lawyer, a village headman and most importantly; women based in the rural areas who are subjected to domestic violence.  

From what I learned, if a woman is violated in this part of Malawi, she will actually have several opportunities to access legal justice, but she’s not using them for different reasons. The obvious way to access legal justice would be to go to the police to report the husband for his violation, go to the hospital for treatment if necessary, take the husband to court and get him sentenced for his violation. This would be considered as “standard procedure” in many parts of the world. But not in the northern region of Malawi. The women I met might report their husband to the police or the village headmen, but only for them to summon the husband to a mediation to make him change. Or they go to the local women forum for shelter, guidance and help. Of course a few of them go through with a divorce, but to many this seems unrealistic and is not even considered by many of the women I talked to. Even more rarely is the matter of actually getting him sentenced for his violation.  

Even though I understand the wish of keeping a family together, it is unusual to me that a woman would stay with a husband who is violating her, whatever her reasons might be. But I don’t blame the women for putting up with the violence and abuse, because it can seem as if these women lose more than they gain when going through with a divorce or seek legal justice; First of all he is the breadwinner, and she and the children are economically dependent on him to survive, which means she cannot afford getting her justice; second of all the community and his family will pressure her into dropping the charges saying she cannot report her own husband, and lastly; if she divorces him she will have to pay back the lobola to get custody of her children, as the customary tradition says the husband now ‘owns’ them having paid for her. This is a clear example of cultural practices being regarded as superior to the Malawi Constitution, as this ensures the woman at least shared custody of both children and properties.  

All of these considerations towards seeking justice only become relevant if the woman knows about her rights and if she has the practical opportunity to go to the Police Victim Support Unit and the magistrate. If she wants or needs an actually trained lawyer to represent her in court, like Legal Aid, she will have to pay for the expenditures through the case and she will have to travel to Mzuzu, as this is Legal Aid’s nearest branch with only four lawyers and one car to service the entire northern region of Malawi.   

So - it is my experience, because now I have my own, that the women and their access to legal justice in this area are challenged by both lack of power and knowledge, by lack of both private and public resources and institutions and by a patriarchal culture that pressures them to avoid enjoying their human rights. It is a long and slow process to challenge the cultural practices and enforcing the actual laws of Malawi, that are supposed to be superior to the cultural practices, and to empower these women to understand that they do have and should claim their rights. Still this seems to be the way forward to secure and improve the rights of women in the northern region of Malawi. Bringing in the men in this development and make them understand the economic and human benefits from not violating women might be the next step in the process.

This is a part of what I learned during my internship in Action Aid Malawi, and I have to say that all these interviews, impressions from the field and the experience of actually facing the women who are dealing with these issues and living these lives would have been rather difficult to achieve at the University back home despite every good intention by the lecturers. Just being here has provided a more holistic view on development and issues regarding women’s rights as culture and context are constantly being brought into the picture. I can’t wait to learn more.