Keeping rural women safe in Malawi

Jacquie Ryan

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There are many women's groups in Malawi - ranging from business groups to human rights activits
There are many women’s groups in Malawi – ranging from business groups to human rights activits

I have just returned from a six week trip to Malawi working with a small Irish NGO called Wells For Zoe.

Over my time there I saw the hard work done by people, the labour in this country is intensive however the conditions for women are not easy. From farming by hand, do the drawing of water, to working with a young child on their back women in this country work incredibly hard, and do not always get the credit and support that they deserve.

Woman Cutting Grass in Rural Village
Woman Cutting Grass in Rural Village

Unfortunately this time our transport broke down, and we got to see the lack of respect and care given to these proud brave and strong women.The garage subcontracted and that is where the story gets bleak.

Jeep being repaired
Jeep being repaired

After awaiting a long time, we contacted the garage and told them we had being waiting over a week to have our vehicle returned, and now we were going to collect the vehicle. My Malawian counterpart being the brave young woman that she is headed out to collect the vehicle. When she got there was a large man, who looked for money for the bringing in of the vehicle. She told him that we had paid the garage and that the agreement we had was with them. He was not having any of it.

Malawian village women welcoming Irish Women
Malawian village women welcoming Irish Women

What followed warped my view of ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ for the next few weeks. The large man hit the young girl. She called us ‘Boss I have been attacked’ are the words that came rushing down the phone. ‘Where are you?’, ‘Meet me near the bank’, the frantic conversation glided over and back between us and the young Malawian lady.

We knew we were close to her and we meant a female police officer on the road, ‘Our colleague has been attacked, can you come with us to the scene of the crime?’ we asked in hope. Her response was cold, one you would never expect to get from anyone in uniform. ‘I am not on duty yet’.

We went and found our girl, and brought her to the local police station. They did not want to know. ‘It is an assault not a rape … you will need to go to the hospital and get a medical report before we take a statement’. Eventually after been given the deaf ear we lost all hope and patience. We looked to speak with the station manager, to find out exactly what was the rules with reporting a crime, the protocol is we give the report, show the police to the site of the crime, and only then do you go to the hospital.

End Violence against women and girls
End Violence against women and girls

We eventually rejoiced as the police took the statement, we overloaded the Jeep and squashed 4 of us into the back and headed out to where the event had taken place. The police came then to the garage to take a statement from the man that had organised the pick-up of the broken down vehicle. After this we were told to go to the hospital for a doctor’s report.

This is when you lose all faith in how women are treated. We drive the mile or more to the hospital, wait half an hour for a doctor only to be told that we need a letter from the police for a doctor to conduct the examination. We drive back to the station, and await for the police man to write the report. Once we have this we head back to the hospital. We wait again for the doctor.

Eventually the doctor comes, and tells us it is outside of hours, and he will examine the patient, prescribe painkillers and let her home. The examination consisted of asking her of where she felt pain, writing a prescription without asking the patient if she had any medical condition or allergies. I picked up she could not take this medication but only based on a life with a nurse for a mum. I said it to my colleague and when the nurse came to dispense the drugs we asked her and she went and got different pain killers.

As it was so late around 7pm we were told we would have to return in the morning for the medical report. The next morning when we got to the hospital, the report had yet to be written. For the first time my colleague was examined. It was quick and the letter hand written and given to us, but first we had to pay almost 5,000 Malawian Kwacha, which is €10

 

Malawi is a country that the average rural family live on an income of €1 a day. To pay almost €10 makes you worry about the rural woman. The police are rare in the rural community, and to meet with the police people often have to walk 15 or 20 kilometres into town.

This experience was generally upsetting and as my colleague and I sat back and discussed it we both had the same fear. We could not help but to think of the rural Malawian woman, being raped. Being raped by her husband (which some will say is not illegal), being raped by her uncle, being raped by her neighbour or being raped by the village chief. Who has she to go to? People in Malawi are warm and friendly but they do have a certain pride about them, no more than the pride the Irish had in the 1950s. Certain things are brushed in under that carpet as far as they go and are not talked about.

If a woman is brave and strong and does decide to make the trip to the police, who is there for her? Police officers who do not want to know? Do not know the protocol. What happens if she does go and they mix up the hospital policy or don’t give her the letter for the doctor? After walking that 15 kilometres to town she could lose faith, and go home back to the same conditions with no hope. This is where women as a group have to come together, support talking, support each other. There is only one way to protect yourself in this country and that is to speak out. NGOs and other community activists are there to help, they are the only solution to this problem. When Malawi as a nation start talking, that is when the problems will be solved.

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Jacquie Ryan