Fighting Patriarchy in Malawi Part II

Jane

Hope Chigudu and the JASS Southern Africa team gathered Malawian women's stories to give a glimpse of work on the ground in Malawi, the shifts that the women have made to change their lives and the dilemma of monitoring and evaluating the shifts. This series of stories demonstrates that there are parallels and connections, and points of intersection between the oppression of HIV+ women in Malawi, and social and cultural expectation and poverty.  These elements actually overlap and reinforce each other. The failure of the male to live up to the societal and family expectations and the recognition of his own failure is a potentially powerful basis for violence. Dispelling some of the beliefs in Malawi that those who seem to be powerless in the eyes of society will always be powerless, these stories illustrate that once the ‘sleeping giant’ in them is awakened, they will find ways and means to liberate themselves. The rebellion can be straight forward but if that does not work, the women will employ ‘guerrilla tactics’ using the power within’ to resist extreme exploitation, oppression and abuse. Every human being has the capacity to rebel and transgress, to cross the line of oppression but usually a catalyst is required to invoke and politicize the spirit of rebellion.

JASS might not be the catalyst but it provides the space for women to meet each other where they are and the tools that act as a stimulus, an awareness of the need for change. It also provides an ambience within which critical thinking can be brought to bear on the individual  environment.  With political awareness each woman crosses her own line when she is ready to do so (line of oppression and exploitation, of what is acceptable or what is not).  No individual human being can cross the critical line for another.

Freezing power: Jane's story

I am a member of an HIV support group but also a Director of a CBO providing support for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Life in our community is hard; surviving each day with only the petty earnings we get from working for other people is a monumental battle.  In addition we are resented because we declared our HIV status. As a result, our bodies have become sights of our struggle (show scars caused by beating). 

In our village, the chief distributes land and fertilisers so it was natural that with fellow villagers, we (Women living with HIV) should approach him for fertilisers. He listened to our pleas carefully, and then stood in front of all the other people who were gathered for the fertilisers and announced that he would not waste resources of the community on walking corpses. ‘These women you see are diseased, they are just walking but they are dead. Why should we waste resource on them?’ The crowd reacted with a raucous round of applause to this uncouth statement. It hurt badly. . .

We did not get fertilisers, were not allocated land and were treated as if we were nonexistent.

Then something strange happened... I was sitting with my children eating our dinner when I saw an old and bent-over man, our chief, standing at my door. He had never done so I could not understand how he could do so now a month after attacking us publicly.  I wondered what it was that he wanted. I greeted him politely.  After beating about the bush, he said that he went to the hospital, was tested and told he was HIV positive. He needed my help. I looked at this man as if my eyes would pop out.  I asked him if it was true that he wanted help from a corpse.

Having attended the Jass workshop and learnt about the importance of claiming power, I used my power within and told him I would help but there were conditions. He was to call a meeting, explain that when he refused to give us fertilisers he did not know what he was doing and apologise to the women he called walking corpses. He would declare his status there and then and persuade people to go for testing. Above all he would find bags of fertilisers for the group. I wanted justice. Only after doing all that would he be allowed to join our group as the first man to do so.

He pleaded with me, called me his auntie, mother, sister, all the names that are supposed to soften a women. He did not want to declare his status, but just wanted me to keep his secret while I bend over forwards and backward to help him.  I stood my ground, I told him that I had many things in my heart including anger over the lack of fertilisers and there was no room left for secrets. I advised him to freeze his status and be like the rest of it. The rage I felt in my heart, the anger at being belittled catalysed my  courage, consciousness, and integrity to the fullest;  this made me rise in rebellion against  obeying the chief,  it prompted me to reject all the rewards for such obedience.  Having seen that my position was not shifting, he agreed to declare his status openly. He apologised to the community and today he talks and behaves like an HIV activist.