Malawian women’s stories may surprise you!

Some of us wore expressions of a most unprofessional glee as Victoria, one of the women at the workshop, a teacher by profession, made us smile by sharing a story of how she has been using also the training acquired in the last JASS workshop to ‘disorganize’ her church. She demanded to talk about HIV and AIDS, thus ending the culture of silence and stigma regarding the subject. We used her story to invite the other participants to share their own experiences.

We heard how petite Doreen used the leadership skills she acquired in the Blantyre workshop to lobby the company, for which she now works, to provide seeds to women living with HIV and AIDS.

Asnat went to the District Commissioner’s office, bypassing ‘hidden powers’ and using the power within to demand to see the DC; she did. She demanded that seed coupons be given to HIV+ women.

Lillian ‘crossed the line’ (her words) by fighting for mobile clinics to provide ARVs for adults and children on the same day so that women don’t have to travel long distances, many times a week to access ARVs for themselves and their children.

Many women shared how they had used the power to and within to mobilize and make demands.

On advocacy – many of the women boasted that their leadership skills have been transforming their lives and those of fellow women and girls by challenging systemic inequalities (including service delivery, especially of agricultural inputs; resource allocation such as land; laws and policies).

We have asked the women to write their stories; we really hope that they will do so.

During yesterday’s discussion there was some concern that there has been a growth of people and organizations providing ‘cheap’ counseling services. These often draw on people from the local community (often women) who do tireless work in providing home-based care and community-level counseling and support. Most of these people tend to have minimal training and minimal support. Actually, the majority is affiliated with religious institutions.

There is little oversight concerning the content of counseling advice, which is problematic given that counseling can reinforce rather than challenge prevailing gender norms (for example, in the case of faith-based counseling, women spoke of counseling against condom use in marriage as well as dissuading ‘clients’ from using ARVs so that they depend on prayer).

In addition there is almost no discussion around creating more empowering counseling and psycho- social frameworks for women and girls. Considering how culture, tradition and religion are still being used to control women’s sexuality, perpetuate violence against women, and ensure that women remain subordinate to men, proper counseling is needed.

A case in point: some women confided that they had not had sex because they don’t have partners and also don’t trust men (so have backaches from lack of sex). The question that we discussed was a delicate one: if one has not had sex for ten years and just wants sex to recover from a backache, is love necessary and important? The aim was not to come to any conclusion but rather to leave it to each one of us to reflect.

The women understood the need to continue to interrogate the linkages between patriarchy, violence against women, denial of resources and service delivery and the feminization of HIV and AIDS, and to find ways of dealing with any of these critical issues in their plans (which they are working on as I am writing).

Inevitably, the discussion touched on sex workers. We concluded that irrespective of the moral and/or other judgments one might have about sex workers and the industry, in so far as human rights are indivisible, the abuse and denial of basic human rights of sex workers must be addressed.

Part two of a four part series. Next - Crossing the Line in Malawi