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Malawi’s culture of sexual violence and rape: a few accounts and some socio-cultural theoretical insights

By Mphatso Moses Kaufulu

Bio: Mphatso is a Malawian cultural and political sociologist. His interests are ethnographic research in sexuality and politics. He currently writes for iAffairsCanada on Southern African politics

The gender situation for girls and women in Malawi is in my view staggeringly deplorable. Abuse in general, be it physical, emotional, sexual and social is very widespread. Economically, the work of women is either undervalued or unacknowledged: for example, in the agricultural sector, women produce more than 50% of the total agricultural output of the country: for all intents and purposes, women and girls feed the entire country even as they are often pushed to the margins of the society. In the household particularly in rural areas, the girl-child and the woman performs a majority of the tasks associated with maintaining the home such as nutrition, household hygiene, fetching water, taking care of siblings and children and so on, to the extent that countless girls (and many women today) have been forced to sacrifice their personal aspirations in order to fulfil these unacknowledged functions. In the urban areas, class is a very important factor: girls born to families in the middle and upper classes tend to be insulated from such wider expectations, as their families can afford to employ “domestic workers” and to privately purchase, through their spending power, access and “equality” for them into wider society. They too however do fall victim to patterns of sexual violence emanating from their familial structures. Poor girls from underprivileged backgrounds do not have this classist luxury, and are thus left to confront, unprotected, the masculine vulgarities of the gender-skewed social system. In addition, the severity of patriarchal violence varies from place to place in Malawi as the country is very diverse culturally and ethnically: in matrilineal and matrilocal settings, these social pressures and expectations materialize differently as the roles of women and girls are somewhat transmuted to fulfil property transference, clan leadership and lineage-tracking functions.

But generally, privilege favours men such as myself, in Malawi who often grow up under very different social and cultural expectations altogether. For us, it is the expectation that we be outgoing, adventurous, risk-takers as we acquaint ourselves with the world beyond the homestead. Also, the cultural canon is replete with layers upon layers of norms which serve as excuses for behaviours which we exhibit which would never be tolerated from the girl-child. We are taught from early on that to be masculine (to be a boy) is to be vulgar, conniving, calculating and sexually adept. The girl-child on the other hand is raised to be ashamed of her sexuality, and especially to conceive of herself as pure primarily on the terms of her sexuality. She is expected to be sexually naïve as a sign of her purity, particularly for the purpose of being sexually innocent for her future male partner: her task is to maintain her sexual purity for him whoever he might be and sometimes whatever he might be up to. In this context therefore, gender relations are given the following configuration: men are not held up to standards of purity because socially they are seen as naturally unrestrained when it comes to their sexual orientation towards women; women on the other hand are expected to be pure solely for the purpose of being one day desired and deflowered by a man, and also as a matter of their own sense of wholesomeness. This is why in Malawi sexual promiscuity continues to be a label reserved primarily for women and rarely for men. (Note: these are social expectations. Malawian women have tremendous agency in undermining or being subversive of such expectations but the matter here is that were norms are constructed in this way, sexual violence and rape can always be dismissed and justified by a social system’s most dominant actors and its dominant discourses.)

This is why it is my view that Malawi has an entrenched culture of rape which is carpeted over whenever instances of rape emerge into the public domain. Following family meetings or other symbolic forms of settlements which are almost always intended to protect the male perpetrator (who is usually, a superior, a personal friend, a cousin, an uncle, a father, a brother and close-family friend, and so on), they are dismissed. The victim’s duty is often to forgive for two primary reasons: one, to guard against disclosing the loss of her own purity because even rape constitutes a form of defilement upon her and it (in fact, this is how rapes are usually reported in Malawian media: as defilements as opposed to rapes); and two, to protect the perpetrator’s reputation within a lens which frames his sexual violence upon her as the consequence of his maleness. (In a convoluted way, the victim is made to affirm him as merely being fully a man who was only doing what men do and thus, she is must forgive him as an affirmation of this male quality even as she grapples and struggles painfully through her own defilement which is brought about by his very violent [and indeed, intended and premeditated] actions.) Even in rape, heteronormative masculinity is affirmed and protected. I cannot count the number of times I have been told: it’s just the way you men are.

Moreover, rape victims are very frequently shamed, blamed and mocked: often, they are seen as having invited the violent crime on themselves because of their clothing, certain features of their bodies, their tone of voice, where they like to visit (that is spaces commonly seen a male spaces), the time of day they are outside female spaces such as the home, for their being naïve, for their secret need for a sexual experience which they actualize through the violence of rape, and so on. It has to be borne in mind that in a gender context in which a women’s role is to be ashamed or shy of their sexuality and sexual expression, an unspoken assumption comes to pervade in which a man very often is raised to believe that when a woman rejects his advances, she is only doing so in order to project this image of her purity and sexual naivety as a way of concealing her underlying desire of him sexually. This type of programming is in practice a license to rape a woman, and a license to feel no remorse afterwards! The man, as an expression of his masculinity, is almost socially obligated to persist against her objections until she finally accepts that which she supposedly was pretending not to want. This too is a common form of harassment: holding a girl or a woman hostage as one coerces her to provide consent when she is repeatedly saying “No”. Sometimes, a “Yes” is given only so that the girl or the woman can get away from a frightening, very uncomfortable hostage situation: this too is rape concealed in a false consent. The man, on the other hand, goes away reinforced in his belief that she had wanted to do it all along.

As far as the majority of Malawian men are concerned, sexual violence and rape seems to be seen as a secondary or side issue – or as a series of isolated incidences. There is not an awareness of sexual violence as part and parcel of the Malawian social fabric; let alone as violence which women continuously think and worry about, and navigate around.  For one, the dominant political parties never seriously discuss it except for one or two platitudes evoking the moral compass deeply embedded within Malawian culture, the heteronormative obligations that good men have towards all women (largely from Judeo-Christian and Islamic perspectives), and of course, calls to a return to law and order (those buzzwords which often mean to further criminalize the marginalized, since to my knowledge, I know not of any time when Malawi was ever particularly safe and secure for women: our very citizenship at independence was gendered and gendered it has remained) in which all crimes, of which rape is only but one, will be taken seriously once the law enforcement agencies are properly resourced (a Malawian version of “All Lives Matter” to this very critical issue of why “Women’s Lives (Specifically Should) Matter”).  Underneath these attitudes are deeply entrenched feelings of entitlement dripping in a toxic atmosphere of male privilege, and therefore widespread male culpability in this culture of sexual violence.

An old relic of colonial Malawi which also perpetrates sexual abuse against women is “domestic work”. Domestic workers are essentially servants (yes, servants) in urban and suburban areas who work inside the home of their employer and often live in a servant’s quarters within the compound or in a room in the main house. They are usually female workers who are responsible for cooking and cleaning the house, baby and child sitting while the employers are at work, and carrying out any other household chores they might be assigned such as washing and ironing clothes (as opposed to what are referred to as Garden-Boys regardless of their age who work the lands of the compound, and who may or may not live at the compound). These are a very vulnerable group of women in urban areas because they tend to be grossly underpaid, severely exploited, without power and thus indentured to their employers. They often cannot afford the expenses of living in urban areas and so, part of their work arrangement is to be offered accommodation and food plus a small salary as compensation for the work they do in the home. Cases of abuse generally, and sexual abuse in particular in which male employers rape domestic workers, will often never see the light of day. Such victims, if lucky, will be quietly dismissed and sent away. In terms of general abuse, some are subjected to severe emotional and physical suffering through verbal and even physical violence. For those who work in the Asian community, some of this abuse is motivated racially and can intersect with sexual abuse and rape as well – and this too is quite well known even though very little is ever done to address it by successive governments or even civil society. In short, sexual violence against women in Malawi takes on the intersectional characteristics of gender-cultural, socio-religious, post-colonial, economic and political oppressions. Social class ascendency acquired through marriage, educational attainment and professional development, though extremely daunting, enables some women to escape the most obvious of the intersectional aspects of this regime of sexual and general gender-based violence – but never completely.

When I was in college, between 2005 and 2009, I cannot count the number of times I heard or witnessed blatant verbal abuse of female students. Some male students would, under the guise of being drunk, tour the female dormitories on campus, shouting at the tops of their lungs, every obscene thing you can think of at the female students. There was also the notorious college bus which made two trips daily to pick-up students who lived on off-campus accommodation (at the extension wings). This bus was known in the small town of Zomba which surrounded the university campus for the notorious students it ferried, who stuck their heads out of the bus, yelling expletives about women to the people it passed in town on its trips to and from the extension wings. Within it were female students as well who somehow found a way to endure and exist in this despicable, distasteful and frankly shamefully violent testosterone-glorifying daily ritual. And all of this, without consequence. I recall writing an article about this to a newspaper which never got published: it just was not news-worthy I suppose. My own sister too, in her first year of study, had a face-to-face encounter such actions: thankfully, a dormitory guard was on hand to intervene before things got worse – and thanks to our relative privilege as the children of Geology Professor, this matter was pursued with an unusual seriousness and prosecuted. Once more: class enabled her access to what should be irrevocable public protections!

And now, in only the second week of January 2018, a musician in Malawi has released a song called Rape, in which he talks about sedating girls who refuse sexual advances with alcohol, opting to rape them thereafter. Yes, there has been some outrage on social media particularly from women but as expected, there are mostly male backers of this song as well. To them, this is just what boys and men do: alas such is their nature. Moreover, they are convinced that her “No” is really a concealed “Yes” and that deep-down, she really wants to be raped too. So far, I have not yet heard a statement from any prominent political figures either – perhaps they will speak up in the days to come when it no longer matters. Civil society activists in their isolated pockets have issued statements of condemnation. And of course, I am not surprised: what else could one expect, save for such few exceptions, from a very entrenched culture of rape and sexual violence?

 

This article has been written in the spirit of #malotoathu.

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