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Celebrating International Women’s Day with a call for continued action

Malawi, like many countries, has grappled with deep-rooted gender disparities, but the strides made in recent years are noteworthy.

As Malawi joins the rest of the world in commemorating International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8, the Warm Heart of Africa stands as a testament to the resilience, strength, and determination of its women.

Celebrated under the theme “Invest in women: Accelerate progress,” this serves as a reminder of the ongoing journey towards gender equality and the empowerment of women in all facets. The Charter of the United Nations (Articles 8 and 101) stipulates that there shall be no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in every capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.

Access to education is a cornerstone of empowerment. Over the years, the government has prioritized improving access to education for girls. Efforts have been made to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education, with initiatives such as school construction, provision of scholarships, and awareness campaigns to encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

Credit: DeepAI

Despite stakeholders being at the forefront of improving access to education, challenges persist, prompting the government to engage a multifaceted approach in addressing the issue. This move has seen the utilization of community engagement and awareness campaigns, fostering a supportive environment so that Malawi can continue to break down barriers and empower its girls to become leaders, innovators, and change-makers.

In the realm of healthcare, the Malawi government, in collaboration with partners, has implemented various programs to enhance maternal and child health. These initiatives focus on increasing access to healthcare services, reducing maternal mortality rates, and addressing reproductive health issues. With partners like the UNFPA and the Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM), the government has been working towards ensuring that women have access to quality healthcare, including family planning services.

Despite these initiatives recognizing the crucial role women play in the well-being of families and communities, there is still work to be done to ensure that women have comprehensive access to healthcare, including family planning services and quality maternal care. Such efforts should also look at eliminating cultural taboos surrounding women’s health. The perception that menstruation is unclean or shameful, leading to various restrictions faced by women and girls during their menstrual cycles, is still prevalent in Malawi. These practices reinforce the notion that women have a limited claim to public spaces and hinder their participation in public life.

“There was no connection with salt,”- Mercy Kazembe

Mercy Kazembe, one of the women who was informed about menstrual taboos, shared her experience. At the onset of her menses, Mercy was told not to handle food and isolate herself. “I realized as I grew up that there was no connection with salt,” she said, adding that she then discovered that it was only a monitoring mechanism “that’s how parents used to tell that it was that time of the month for the girls,” added the Lilongwe-based resident.

Another misconception is the belief that women and girls experience diminished physical or emotional capacities during their menstrual cycles, creating barriers to opportunities and reinforcing gender inequality. Despite this, most women and girls are not hindered in any way by menstruation. Poverty and humanitarian crises can further limit access to culturally appropriate menstrual supplies and safe washing facilities, affecting women and girls worldwide.

In some instances, the onset of menstruation is still compromising human rights in some cultures, as it is often seen as an indication of readiness for marriage or sexual activity, making them vulnerable to abuses like child marriage and sexual violence. The development has seen some deeply impoverished girls resort to transactional sex to afford menstrual products.

In light of the challenges faced in the health sector, FPAM Executive Director Donald Makwakwa has reaffirmed commitment to enhancing service delivery in all areas. “We will make sure that our services are available as well as accessible. We understand that there are a lot of women who travel long distances to access health care,” he said, adding that the move will see women openly seek and receive the care they need.

FPAM Executive Director Donald Makwakwa

Economic empowerment remains a vital component of the gender equality equation. Malawi has seen progress in promoting women’s participation in the workforce, with women contributing significantly to agriculture, trade, and various industries. However, limited opportunities for women in leadership positions persist, calling for the need to continuously promote policies that ensure equal pay, create inclusive workplaces, and support women in entrepreneurship and leadership roles.

As this day dawns on the rest of the world, it serves as a call to action, urging Malawi to redouble its efforts in creating an environment where women are not just participants but active contributors to the nation’s development. By investing in women’s education, health, and economic empowerment, Malawi can unlock the full potential of its population and pave the way for a more equitable and prosperous future.

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