Friday, May 3, 2013

Activists in Malawi Fight Over the Fight for Gender Equality

Source: Gender Links

Religious groups and civil society organisations are putting continued pressure on President Joyce Banda to reconsider the Gender Equity Bill she passed in March. Certain groups have threatened to take the issue to court if parliament does not review the bill.
The President recently assented to the draft law, which seeks to empower women to participate in decision-making and development activities, ensures equal access to education, sexual reproductive health rights and prohibits sexual harassment and violence against women.
However many religious leaders and organisations are condemning the bill for sections they deem immoral. A petition against the Gender Equality Bill addressed to the President, drawn-up by Umunthu Pressure Group also claims that the draft law does not reflect the interests, aspirations and understanding of Malawians. It further asserts that Malawians were not educated and consulted on certain sections.
The primary contention lies in Section 19, which ensures the right to adequate sexual and reproductive health services as well as enshrining the right to choose whether to have children. However, some groups see this as an indirect form of legalising abortion and feel that criminalising medical practitioners for refusing to conduct family planning methods contravenes their right to freedom of religion and belief.
Religious groups and civil society organisations are putting continued pressure on President Joyce Banda to reconsider the Gender Equity Bill she passed in March. Certain groups have threatened to take the issue to court if parliament does not review the bill.
The President recently assented to the draft law, which seeks to empower women to participate in decision-making and development activities, ensures equal access to education, sexual reproductive health rights and prohibits sexual harassment and violence against women.
However many religious leaders and organisations are condemning the bill for sections they deem immoral. A petition against the Gender Equality Bill addressed to the President, drawn-up by Umunthu Pressure Group also claims that the draft law does not reflect the interests, aspirations and understanding of Malawians. It further asserts that Malawians were not educated and consulted on certain sections.
The primary contention lies in Section 19, which ensures the right to adequate sexual and reproductive health services as well as enshrining the right to choose whether to have children. However, some groups see this as an indirect form of legalising abortion and feel that criminalising medical practitioners for refusing to conduct family planning methods contravenes their right to freedom of religion and belief
Emma Kaliya, a renowned Malawian gender activist differs with the group arguing, "Most notable clauses in the law are not new because they are taken from regional and international human rights treaties to which Malawi either ratifies or is a signatory."
The sections within the bill are no different from those found in the United Nations (UN) International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which Malawi is a signatory. The section is also in line with the SADC Gender and Development Protocol, which demonstrates Malawi's commitment to reaching gender equality by 2015.
CEDAW's Article 16 states: "Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family planning relations and in particular shall ensure, on the basis of equality of men and women, the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights."
Many Malawian cultural and religious beliefs discriminate against women since many married women seldom have any say on the number of children they bear. Some faith groups also prohibit women from practicing any family planning methods.
The 2012 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer states that Malawi has the lowest contraceptive usage and the highest abortion rate in Southern Africa. Most abortions are unsafe and contribute to the ever-increasing maternal and infant mortality rates. Although Malawi has reduced the maternal mortality, the rate is still high with 675 women dying per 100 000 live births. Abortion complications account for 17% of these deaths.
Furthermore, having no say in sexual reproduction obstructs participation in social and economic activities, leaving many rural women economically dependent on their male counterparts. Gender activists argue that this dependency contributes to violence against women and worsens women's overall vulnerability.
The Gender Equity Bill is therefore essential for protecting the rights of women and ensuring gender equality in the country. It further cements the existing legislation that guarantees equality, prohibits discrimination based on sex or gender, protects women from domestic violence and sexual harassment.
Thus it is difficult to see how this law does not reflect the interests, aspirations and understanding of all Malawians, especially that of women. One wonders whether those opposing the bill are falling trap to patriarchal tendencies by perceiving women's equality as a threat to male privilege.
On the upside, local and international gender and human rights activists have hailed the country for this progressive law. In a statement signed by the National Coordinator of Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion, Chrispin Sibande assured citizens that "people who believe in real human rights and activists will respond accordingly to any attempts to fight gender equality and the Gender Law."
 Calling on the President to withdraw her signature is unspeakable. Such attempts to stifle gender equality and the advancement of women's rights are not only retrogressive and but threaten the spirit of gender activism in the country.
 I urge all gender and human rights activists to reinvigorate that spirit and start strategising on how to implement the law to ensure it benefits all women and girls especially those living in rural areas. I urge those opposing the bill to remember that there can never be human rights if women are not allowed to make their own choices.