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Women's rights in the bedroom

Joyce Phekani                        Joyce Phekani runs a support centre for abused women in Malawi. She says increased                           awareness means more women now report abuse to police. Photo by Sarah Feldbloom. 

By Sarah Feldbloom and Jacquiline Zulu

“Look at my face. Maybe you can see me as 35-years-old but I'm 29. All of that is because of misery.”

At the Centre for Alternatives for Victimized Women and Children in Blantyre, Malawi, a survivor of domestic violence tells us about her experiences. She’s been receiving counselling at the centre to try and find a way forward from being beaten by her husband, who uses her salary to run the house while saving his own money for personal extravagances.

The term gender-based violence encompasses sexual, physical, financial or psychological abuse against women. According to a 2009 study by Malawi’s National Statistics Office, 48 per cent of Malawian women reported one or more of these four types of abuse from a partner.

Gender-based violence is an everyday part of life for many women in Malawi. From being denied the right to say no to or ask for sex, to being forced to bear unwanted children, or even request their partner wear a condom, it’s a resounding problem, one of many to be addressed around the world this week in celebration of International Women's Day.

Initiatives that inform the public about such abuses are making a difference in Malawi, says Joyce Phekani, executive director of the Centre for Alternatives for Victimized Women and Children.

“In the early years when we were just introducing gender-based violence and its structures in the communities, there were a lot of cases being reported,” she says. “Slowly the numbers are going down because people are now aware that if [they] do such a thing it’s going to be a police case."

Progress or not, violence against women in Malawi is dire. In the majority of casual conversations we have with women we know, they reveal they’ve been abused.

Phekani tells us that often, when women ask for or deny sex from their partners, “the conclusion for the man is that you are a prostitute or an adulterer.”

Not all women are silenced around issues of sex, but it remains a major area of contention. Women are not expected not to discuss how many babies they will have, for example, even if it is deemed unsafe for them to bear more children. And when it comes to safe sex, women are often silenced too.

“A woman is not expected to make the husband use a condom.” Phekani says. “Even when you see that the man has got a sore. You cannot. These are things we are really trying to reverse, especially in the face of HIV/AIDS."

Phekani adds that equal pleasure in sex is often lacking, a sentiment the anonymous survivor repeats: “He would just take me as a tin for masturbation,” she says, referring to her husband.

Phekani says many girls learn from childhood that is their duty is to please their man, especially sexually. "We are raised in a society where people believe that a woman is weaker,” she says, “it’s sort of like a master and servant relationship."

Increased awareness has been shown to promote progress, and giving voice to survivors could have a real effect on decreasing the numbers of gender-based violence victims.

When asked if public discussions carried out on International Women's Day can really help, our survivor replies, “It's important . . . men can change. But sometimes it might be difficult because it’s only women who participate on those occasions. It would be better if it felt like it was about families and not only women.”

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