“We have been sold a dud,” activist, writer and JASS advisor, Everjoice Win warns.“Women can sit in Parliament until they go red in the face but that’s not where decisions are made. JASS has a wonderful way of bringing the pressure and support that helps them take action but we [women’s movements] are not addressing this question. Are we there—where the real power is sitting?” From 50/50 campaigns to the SADC Gender Protocol Summit, increasing women’s political leadership has been on the top of gender equality agendas since the mid-1990s. But women’s rights advocates also recognize that, while having more elected and appointed women is important, governments are no longer the sole locus of power and decision-making. As global private and corporate actors play increasingly bigger roles in shaping the future of development and human rights—sometimes operating as unaccountable to the public—it becomes increasingly important for citizens to be informed and even more strategic when it comes to demanding justice and rights.
Since independence from colonialism, women’s movements across Africa have put their efforts into organizing women to demand higher levels of political representation. Today 50/50 Campaigns promoted and supported by many donors, generate great enthusiasm, provide a rallying point amongst women across class divisions, and often, achieve important successes in increasing the numbers of women in government decision-making. But, as many scholars have pointed out over the last decade, a focus on this as the end point rather than part of challenging inequality and gender power relations is insufficient. In fact, despite important gains in representation in some countries, women in the region have gotten poorer while inequality between men and women has increased. Such is the case in Malawi where HIV positive women (HIV+) do not have access to quality antiretroviral treatment (ART) despite women-friendly laws such as Malawi’s Gender Equality Bill (2012) and other laws guaranteeing HIV+ women’s access to needed resources.
There is no doubt that former President Joyce Banda, a long-time women’s rights supporter, made a difference for women in Malawi and indeed, was crucial to some of the gains achieved by the advocacy campaign, Our Bodies, Our Lives on quality HIV treatment that JASS helped to organize. Through this campaign—a product of a five-year organizing and leadership-training effort by JASS and MANERELA+— HIV+ women activists have taken advantage of the opportunity presented by President Banda’s election make good on their rights to health, better treatment and care. While acknowledging that women in government can make a difference, they have come to realize that without continuous pressure and an informed demand on policymakers, the gap between rhetoric and implementation remains wide.
“We pay a lot of taxes and we are sick, so we are challenging the government to ensure a sustainable ART regimen…it’s our responsibility to fight for these things,” says Sibongile Singini, MANERELA+.
From putting pressure on their local councillors and President Joyce Banda, to getting their perspectives and experiences to the public through the media, HIV+ women are joining forces with religious leaders, healthcare professionals and researchers to demand quality ARV treatment and healthcare at different levels. Even with the recent election that saw Joyce Banda—who supported the campaign’s demand for alternative ART—lose the presidential seat, the women are not deterred. Women activists used the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to host three nationwide shows to take the lid off taboos and expose some of the serious issues affecting positive people, including access to quality ART, and stigma and discrimination experienced in communities and at local hospitals. Their community dialogues with local authorities and religious leaders, and healthcare literacy and awareness workshops that draw hundreds have opened the door for women to demand accountability and improve services for HIV positive people and the quality of their democratic processes.
At the heart of HIV+ women activists’ organizing is an understanding that while having more elected and appointed women is important, real transformation from the local to the national is possible only when women in communities mobilize collectively at different levels to ensure that their problems and needs are addressed, and their rights secured and protected.
SADC Gender Protocol Summit photo credit: Newsday