From 2014 to 2015 WLSA-Malawi carried out research on gender based violence on the campus for Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi. The research was conducted under the project entitled “Promoting Sexual and Reproductive Rights and bodily integrity among girls at Chancellor College by combating gender-based violence” with funding from the Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA). The project was implemented by WLSA-Malawi in partnership with the Faculty of Law from the The research focused on forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual harassment, as key barriers to young women’s bodily integrity. The research provided opportunities to reflect and act on young women’s lack of control over their own bodies, as well as the institutional cultures and practices that impede such control.
Often it is assumed that because College curricula contain courses on gender, there is no longer a need to reflect on gendered and patriarchal institutional practices. Engagements with gender are often appropriated by official discourse, and detached from feminist activist roots. This action research project on gender based violence gave us an opportunity to return to those roots. In our research the combination of knowledge and action involved the cyclical integration of a number of activities namely; data collection; education; awareness raising; action and reflection.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) refers to any act of violence, in public or private, which results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts and the coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty (UN, 1995). In Malawi 40% of women have ever experienced sexual violence, 30% of women have ever experienced physical violence and 44% have ever experienced psychological violence (UN Women, 2013).
Globally, Malawi ranks 173 on the Gender Development Index (GDI), with a GDI of 0.907. GBV is culturally condoned, leading women to accept it as normal, for instance 35.7% of all women in Malawi (38.2% in rural & 22.4% in urban) find it acceptable to be beaten by their husbands (NSO, 2004). Thus GVB incidences are rampant in Malawi. This acceptance is in line with men’s role of “disciplining” and “correcting” their wives through beatings if they do not fulfill their roles as expected. However, such gender perceptions portray women as inferior to men resulting in many women being subjected to domestic violence and other social ills.
However, the general perception in Malawi is that GBV is a problem facing young, uneducated rural women and girls only. This perception creates a gap in the programming of interventions on GBV/VAW in that educated and urban women and girls are often not targeted. However, reality on the ground shows that GBV is a menace haunting all women regardless of their status. It cuts across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. This results in educated and urban women suffering in silence. Institutions of higher learning seem complicit in this by their insensitivity in their policies to GBV issues that affect female students.
It is with this in mind that Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA-Malawi) through this project intended to fill the gap and promote Sexual Reproductive Rights (SRHR) and bodily integrity among girls in the University of Malawi by initiating gender research and activism project. Our rationale for using Action Research to investigate the GBV, was not only to gather data, but also to educate, raise consciousness and take action that would change the institutional culture and arrangements that impede female students’ ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights (WHO, 2005). The implementation of this project complemented the efforts already being undertaken by Chancellor College, the Government of Malawi with the assistance of development partners to combat GBV among others.