Caution: Fearless Women Crossing the Line in Malawi

There’s energy in the air—here in Malawi. It crackles and shimmers, builds and builds, until it feels as though we are riding on a tidal wave of collective power, of women who have come from every corner of the country ready to raise their voices and make change happen.

It’s amazing to sit here and witness women stand up, and talk and talk and talk about the issues that affect them, their bodies and their hearts, their families and communities, their organisations and more. They know their issues because these issues are situated in their own experiences as women and activists living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.

The Malawian government has promised a rollout of a second line regimen of ART (antiretroviral therapy) in 2013—but only has the resources to fund that for a year. As Martha Kwatani put it, with a laugh, “I can promise my daughter a shoe but it doesn’t mean I will get it for her. Or I could get her the wrong shoe, or a second-hand one, or only one shoe that she can keep for a year.”

But this campaign that has been years in the making, the women who have poured their hearts and souls into building it, say that women are not going to wait for the government to deliver on promises in some nebulous and uncertain future. They are going to fight for it now, fight for their bodies, and fight for their lives.

As a practise, we try to resist conformity to typical workshop styles—no sitting in stiff lines or obstructive desks or boring horse-shoe formations—and definitely no “high tables” for guests of honour (whoever they may be). We’re feminists, and we’re fighting to create feminist spaces. Today, we ended in a strange square-circle —squeezing chairs into the room to fit in 120 women isn’t easy. We saw that revolutionary spirit come out (even in an odd arrangement) when Dr. Chimbwandira, Director of the HIV and AIDs Unit at the Ministry of Health was asked by all the women in the room to step off the room’s unused podium and step into the centre of the square, the “hot seat” where women could question him and raise so many of the issues in the campaign. Despite engaging with a high level government representative, the women have no fear, filling their space and asking question after question and sharing their experiences.