The power of purple: changing attitudes in Malawi

Nikki van der Gaag General, Violence Against Women and Girls

Nikki van der Gaag, Oxfam GB’s Director of Women’s Rights, reports from rural Malawi, where Oxfam is working with the First Lady to end gender-based violence and promote gender equality.

The excitement is palpable. The sun is already hot, but people are gathering in groups to sing and dance. All are in bright colours, but the two that dominate are Oxfam’s purple and black: ‘End Violence against Women and Girls’ robes, and the pale blue of the President’s party.

We are in Phalombe District, in the south of the country, on the flat plains dominated by Malawi’s 3,000 metre Mount Mulanje. The crowds are gathering in a local school, where a clear area of red earth has been encircled by tents, and, in honour of their visitor, a platform with flowers and a chair.

They have come on foot and in trucks, old and young, women and men. Many are barefoot, some have hats or handkerchiefs on their heads. Gradually they settle down, standing in the shade or sitting upright, legs outstretched in front of them.

They are here to see the First Lady, Professor Gertrude Mutharika, who is an Oxfam Ambassador on ending violence against women and girls. She is accompanied by seven other Ambassadors, including Malawi’s First female Chief Justice, Anastasia Msosa; Paramount Chiefs, Gomani and Kawinga; Senior Chief Chikumbu and Senior Chief Kachindamoto (a woman who is a tireless campaigner against child marriage, visiting homes and communities to stop the practice); Skeffa Chimoto, a popular Malawian musician; and Faith Mussa, a Malawian gospel singer who performs not only in the villages of his country but on stages around the world.

The presence of the men as well as the women is evidence of the fact that women’s voices alone, are not enough in this patriarchal society. Faith and Skeffa tell me how part of the ambassador role is to go around villages playing music and speaking about the importance of girls’ education and ending violence. Faith also takes his voice to the churches, where elders also listen.

 ‘I came from a woman’, says Skeffa, ‘why should I beat a woman? Violence is inhuman.’

‘I came from a woman’, says Skeffa, ‘why should I beat a woman? Violence is inhuman.’

Their voices, and the First Lady’s are sorely needed. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, where inequality is on the rise. It is also one of the world’s worst places to be a woman – and getting worse rather than better. It went down 20 places in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking 101 out of 144 countries.

The percentage of women who have ever experienced physical violence has increased from 28 per-cent in 2010 to 34 per-cent in the 2015-16 Demographic and Health Survey.

And In 2014, women’s representation in parliament dropped from 43 to 32 MPs.

Not only this, but almost 50 per cent of girls can expect to be married before they are 18. This is despite the efforts of the government to outlaw the practice, a Gender Equality Act, passed in 2013, and a Gender Ministry and a Women’s Caucus in Parliament.

Changing attitudes and behaviours – known as social norms – is therefore key. And this event aims to be part of that change.

The First Lady’s arrival is heralded more by a sort of indrawn breath from the crowd, rather than the cavalcade that sometimes announces a person of importance. She is wearing an elegant tailored dress made out of the Oxfam material.

The speeches go on for a couple of hours, interspersed with groups of women and school children performing songs and dancing.

She doesn’t pull her punches, speaking of incest, rape of orphans, violence in the family, and the importance of girls going to school.

Finally the First Lady moves to the microphone. She doesn’t pull her punches, speaking of incest, rape of orphans, violence in the family, and the importance of girls going to school. She says that she agreed to become an Oxfam Ambassador because gender-based violence not only harms women and girls, it holds back the country’s development:

‘When women and girls are subjected to gender based violence of various forms, they are affected both physically and emotionally, as such, they are unlikely to take part in development activities. This reduces the number of Malawians that could take part in development.’

The crowd listen in rapt silence. And then, suddenly, the event is over. As the First Lady’s car sweeps down the road out of the school, the stage, banners and tents are already being taken down. People stream away in all directions, some along the road, some through the fields of corn and sunflowers. Many of the school children, girls included, are on bicycles. They are still lively, despite the long day.

Perhaps the conversations over dinner tonight will begin to open up the kinds of debates between couples, parents and children, elders and the youth, and within communities, that are so sorely needed to change both attitudes and behaviours.

It is to be hoped that the example set by the First Lady and others today will begin to make a difference to some of those grim statistics. One sign of change in the days following the event was the suspending of nine primary school teachers in Phalombe District for allegedly having sexual relations with their pupils.

If these changes in structures, attitudes and behaviours can be made, the women and girls of this beautiful country will have a different kind of future; one that will benefit all its citizens.

Read more about our work on ending violence against women and girls

Nicole Oloo