Gender Activism: How NOT to do it


In Malawi, it is not unusual to see people discussing gender-related issues in public, on radio or on national television. This has been happening for a number of years now, close to a decade. While this may be looked at as an indication that there is some measure of awareness, the story is not as rosy as it appears on the surface.

Although gender activism in Malawi has registered some gains, losses are part and parcel of this “fight” equation. The main challenge facing gender activism in Malawi (and in most parts of the world) is use of wrong approaches, hence missed opportunities.

Imagine if men were made to understand (through comprehension) that there is need for improved relations between men and women in society (peaceful co-existence between the two sexes)!

What is more, that what needs to be realized is not only inter-gender relations, but, more so, intra-gender relations: that what men and women ought to do is to “fight” for the improvement of relations between the sexes, but also, further than that, amongst men, on one hand, and amongst women, on the other.

Obviously you don’t expect any resistance from either sex in such a scenario. This is supposed to be the approach in gender activism. Conversely, what prevails on the ground is rather theoretical: that men have been and, still are, dominant in almost all walks of life and this, therefore, has to change.

This approach tends to be confrontational and, obviously, you don’t expect dutiful cooperation from men. Why? It is more of a tug-of-war scenario in which each of the two sides would like to win. Historically, feminism as a movement in theory aimed at reducing the inequality between men and women in society.

This would be achieved, for instance, by “uplifting” the gender roles of women so that they are at par with those of men. What is crucial however is to ensure that the process does not simultaneously jeopardize the position of men.

The various strands of feminism such as liberal feminism; radical feminism and socialist feminism agree on the fact that there is inequality in society and that there is need for change. However, they differ on the “how” part: on how to end this inequality.

Radical feminists are extreme and hold that women ought to de-link from men, that is, to withdraw from a male-dominated society. The pertinent question here is: how do you improve relations between the sexes when the two live apart (in different societies)?

The gender activists are seen to be confrontational and temperamental in their quest to address gender imbalances and abuses in society. What is more, they are full of generalisations.

Take, for instance, gender-based violence; the picture that is painted is erroneous and misleading: that men are the perpetrators of violence, and women are victims. This is a generalisation, to say the least.

Consequently, there are many NGOs that have launched the fight to reverse the trend, yet, in Malawi; there are cases in which men are also the victims. The other aspect to the problem is our Malawian culture.

It holds that “mwanalume wakwenera kuzizipigza chomene” (a man is supposed to be more tolerant). As a result, men suffer in silence. Ideally, therefore, you expect such organisations to be fighting even for the male cause so that such cases are brought to light and diminish with time.

In Malawi, one often hears about initiatives aimed at improving the status of women, be it in education, trade, agriculture and health,among other fields. While this is a positive development, totally ignoring the plight of men, fewer though they may be, is aggravating rather than lessening the gender problem.

For example, there are numerous initiatives aimed at “women empowerment” under the theme affirmative action. This is welcome development, but … If there are (for instance) numerous education scholarships to enable “the girl child” attain and complete her education, what about the equally needy (or even more) “boy child”?

Segregationist and discriminatory initiatives have to be avoided at all cost, otherwise, such initiatives are counter-productive. Historically, women scholars after noticing that women’s voices were invisible in society (books) labeled history as ‘his-story,’ or the story of man’s experiences.

Consequently, they launched a counter-move to depict women’s voices in books. They embarked on re-writing history books! For the moment, they felt successful, but alas, in the long run they came up with women’s history and not human history (a record of the experiences of men and women). My conviction is that, once not careful, the current crop of gender activists are bound to make the same mistake since they are taking a similar route.

In her assessment of the women’s movement in an article titled “Whither Women’s Movement in Malawi” (Weekend Nation, September 14, 2013), Seodi White, one of the gender activists in Malawi, makes the following conclusion: “I have been a feminist for 16 years. The biggest battle I have had to fight for the women’s movement is their personal relations with the men they love.

“Today, most Malawian women are locked up in abusive relationships with their men and it’s not getting better. Therefore, for me, what has been a huge concern is the need to emancipate women to learn to resist the shackles of patriarchy which ultimately make women succumb to abusive relationships without much resistance.” To say the least, this sounds antagonistic!

What is more, White is seemingly pessimistic and has faint and forlorn hope in as far as winning this “fight” is concerned. If this were a war situation, this would be equated to a wounded soldier limping out of the battle field.

During a recent National Gender Conference which was held in Mangochi, southern Malawi, UN Women Representative in Malawi, Alice Harding Shackleford is reported to have argued that “women are not asking for the moon, just their equal rights”.However, my argument here is slightly different: if the approaches are wrong, then obviously women “are asking for the moon” and this is impractical.

However, she was right to argue that “there was need to move to a position where women are not seen only as a vulnerable group and victims, but as agents of change”. This is in line with the human agency theory, which looks at both men and women not as victims (of circumstances), but as actors, and decision-makers.

What gender activists have to fight for is a situation where both men and women are beneficiaries of human rights, in the actual sense of the concept. It is rather erroneous for some quarters to be fighting for ‘women’s rights’ out of these human rights.

Unless there is real understanding of the gender issues (and gender-related issues) at hand, the “fight” will not bear fruit. Gender activists need to tone down and sober up. There is no need to tackle gender bias with another form of gender bias, rather, gender inclusivity (inclusiveness).

In the tug-of-war scenario, anybody wants to win and, sadly, there is no win-win situation in this! If one is to go by what is currently on the ground, would it be wrong to argue that what we have are not gender activists, rather women activists agitating for women’s dominance in a male-dominated society? – The African Executive

• Harvey CC Banda is a lecturer in the African History Department of History at Mzuzu University in Malawi. He can be contacted at

September 2013
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