When I lived in the village I found myself rationalizing most behaviors as “cultural differences.” Behaviors such as throwing rocks at dogs, waking up at 4am just for fun, and men lounging most of the day as their wives struggle to carry the water, wash the dishes, and cook all the meals usually with a baby strapped to the back. Malawi is a male dominated society, and it was only until I moved away from the villages, away from all the cultural “differences” and into a world far more recognizable that I realized just how powerful the men still are and how far women still have to go before they could ever be considered truley equal citizens.
On the surface, it would appear that women are given all the same basic human rights; they are allowed to vote, own businesses, go to school, etc. However, spousal rape is not recognized as an offence, and until fairly recently, rape in general was not acknowledged as a crime. The reasoning was that if the man chose to have sex with a woman there should really be no further discussion. Here in Malawi, if a man chooses to have more than one wife, or have a mistress, there is no discussion.
My neighbor, and closest friend in the village, was forcefully removed from her home by her husband when he decided he wanted to replace her with another woman. She left only because he threatened to never let her see her 4-year-old son again. Their tribal tradition gave all children and property to the man of the house. Without money, high school diploma, or most likely a valid marriage license there was no legal recourse for her. She lives a two-day and month’s wages journey from her son now with no prospects of finding work.
Recently, there was movement by several men to stop women from wearing pants. As western ways slip into daily life here some of the younger generation have taken to wearing pants instead of the traditional ankle length sarong. In protest of this practice women wearing pants or skirts above the knee were grabbed by men, stripped in the streets and admonished until sympathetic onlookers would save them. The action was done by just a few men, but the reaction was the truly scary part. Malawians were divided; half believed it was a horrible act, however, a shockingly large portion of both men and women agreed that although the act was in poor taste, the message was right one: Women showing off their body were asking for negative attention because males are unable control their “urges.”
This uncontrollable carnal nature of men seems to be a common excuse for men’s behavior: forgiving them for forcing their wife into sex, taking a mistress, polygamy, etc. A man’s virility here is a common topic of conversation. Several men I’ve spoken with from various villages and tribes believe that if a man has only a few children he is “lazy,” but if the couple cannot conceive it is always the women’s fault.
As a white woman here I don’t really count as a woman. Malawians acknowledge that I have my own culture, and they have theirs and the standards don’t apply to me. They all agree though, that one tradition is not better than the other. Accepting this, as a woman, is a difficult pill to swallow. I believe the change must come from women themselves first; they must find their voices, believe in their own equality and begin to effect change. Things are different here now than even 20 years ago, but women in Malawi still are living in a boy’s club, they’ve found the clubhouse, but they must find the courage to knock and force their way in.