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date: 06 May 2021

Women in Malawilocked

  • Anika WilsonAnika WilsonAfrican and African Diaspora Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  •  and Sitinga KachipandeSitinga KachipandeVirginia Tech

Summary

The status, rights, and roles of women in Malawi have been in constant flux since at the least the mid-19th century. In the pre-colonial period, principles of matriliny organized social structures within many communities in Malawi, affording women rights to land, property, products of labor, and children, and influence in group decision-making. The mid-19th century ushered in a period of disturbances and social transformations that led to changes in economic, political, religious, and familial practices. Changes in key institutions impacted women’s access to land and their influence in governance. Women in Malawi were excluded from new commercial and political opportunities as long-distance commerce increased in the region. Increasing commodification of people endangered women within intensified trade and military conflict. Patterns of increasing exclusion and endangerment of women continued beyond the mid-19th century after the slave trade was challenged. In the period immediately preceding colonial rule and also during the colonial period, women actively sought to maintain rights and influence through their involvement in Christian institutions, their appeal to courts, public protests, and through their subversive expression in songs, stories, and possession cults. In post-colonial Malawi, women did not gain the freedom that they had struggled for during the anti-colonial movements. Kamuzu Banda marginalized women from access to power and decision-making. He maintained a paternalistic approach to women’s issues which included controlling every aspect of their lives. The constitution adopted in 1994 with democratic reforms laid a strong foundation for women achieving rights and improving their socio-economic status. However, women still faced obstacles in fully realizing their rights and continued to be marginalized by Banda’s successors. Women’s participation in leadership was limited to showing support for the president. The election of Joyce Banda as the first female president did little to improve the status of women. Backlash against her ascendance to the position eroded women’s access to decision-making posts in the government. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the government of Malawi responded to pressures from women’s rights advocates to legislate against gender-based violence and child marriage. However, there has been little evidence of sustained and coordinated women’s movements and activism aimed at improving women’s socio-economic status. Much of the work women do to improve their position and that of their families and communities takes place on a small scale or involves cooperation with precariously funded nongovernmental organizations and community-based organizations.

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