Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I have been trying to write this since International Women's Day in March.

I have abandoned this post many times for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. I keep coming back to it and have decided just to go ahead and put it up.

Before I go any further, I must say that my reflections will carry the bias of a 20-something, white Canadian woman. I'm not an expert on Malawi or women's issues and have no authority to speak on either. My intention is to share my observations and learn through feedback. As always, corrections, dissenting opinions, comments and dialogue are welcomed.

As a woman and a feminist, I very much support activities that work to promote the empowerment of girls and women. I believe that there are horrific problems facing women and girls throughout the world and salute individuals and initiatives that work to chip away at this myriad of issues.

Living in Malawi, I am constantly confronted with the gross gendered disparities that exist here. For example, of the 38% of Malawians who are illiterate, 64% are women. Malawian women make up 52% of the population and 67% of them live below the poverty line. Sexual violence against women and girls is far too common, and HIV prevalence is much higher among women.

I have heard countless horror stories and resolved many times to write about the injustices faced by Malawian women. Every time I start to write, a funny thing happens. It feels inauthentic and exploitative and I abandon whatever I start.

I realized that the problems is that I've been trying to regurgitate the perception of 'the African woman' (as if there were only one) that I had somehow forged into my psyche when I was young.

Some long-ago, media endorsed Western perception of 'Her' wanted to perpetuate itself out of my pen. To take out dimensions of personality, circumstance and culture and put forth a simplified summary of who 'she' is. Tell a heart-wrenching sob-story of how marginalized she is and how hard she works.

It is true that many women here are marginalized and that many are very hardworking. While I have oftentimes found myself angered by the injustices that oftentimes come along with being a woman here, I realized that I don't see the Malawian women (only) in that way. There is so much more - heaps of beauty, intelligence, resilience, colour, personality, abundance...

Needless to say, I've been feeling a bit stuck - how can I talk about the 'bad stuff', without generalizing a huge demographic? How can I share my observations without dehumanizing and further marginalizing a group of people?

I don't have any answers, but from the ruins of my efforts to write about 'Her', this is what I came up with:


I've spent a long time trying to write about what happened to Her,
Thinking about why I can't find the words to tell you about Her
and I've come to this:

I am not the purple-blue shadows that were once forced onto my skin by the hands of a male partner who wanted to control me
or the self-imposed starvation that devoured my tweens as I tried to fit an imposed ideal of beauty
I don't define myself by the struggles I have faced in my experience as a woman

So why would I define her by hers?

I can't tell of a one-dimensional Woman
With all the tabloid-style sensationalism
That so many in the West too often hear


and it is not my right to tell you about her
but a sacred privilege bestowed upon me

So I can no longer paint her picture as the
face on many a development agency website
try to stuff my words
into the false mold of the single-African story -
the plight of the poor Malawian woman
told by us without Her

If I told you she was raped
If I told you she is malnourished
If I told you that she wakes up at 4am to fetch water

I would be raping her of her humanness
Starving her of her dignity and
Drowning her with who the world thinks she is

If I didn't also tell you that her favourite subjects in school were math and science
and that her favourite chitenge is the one with the Manchester United logo on it
and that she could kick your ass any day at netball!

She wants to be a nurse
and adores the colour turquoise
and named her baby 'Chikondi' because of the love that she has for him

Indeed I would be doing us all a gross injustice
If I flattened her into one easily palatable dimension -
using certain parts of her story to selectively cast darkness
on all that she is


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