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One female president won’t stop sexual violence

- March 20, 2014

A guest post by Patrick Adams featured on Nicholas Kristof’s NYT blog two days ago asked, “Can One of Africa’s Most Powerful Women Stop Sexual Violence?” The short answer is no.
(Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)
President of Malawi Joyce Banda, featured in the NYT blog post, came to power a couple of days after her predecessor died in office. She was not elected as president, and in the short period she was vice president, then-President Bingu wa Mutharika marginalized her role in government. The political party she started after her falling out with Mutharika is new enough to have very few members of parliament, and so President Banda is more vulnerable to opposition in Malawi’s legislature than most leaders in the predominantly presidential systems in Africa. She’s also dealing with a major corruption scandal, which has led some foreign donors to withhold aid, which constitutes nearly 40 percent of the government’s budget. The economy is flagging, and there have been demonstrations led by civil society leaders. In brief, Banda is faced with serious challenges and has no popular mandate. At the same time, she’s got an election she wants to win in May.
By virtue of being a woman, is Banda uniquely positioned to stop sexual violence? It’s unclear. There are sufficiently few women presidents that we have little data with which to explore gendered patterns of policy and service provision.
If we extrapolate to women presidents what we know about women lawmakers, the answer is maybe. Michelle Swers’s research showed women in the U.S. Congress are more likely to prioritize issues related to women (and children and families); her book finds that women lawmakers in the 103rd and 104th Congresses are particularly active on feminist issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, and child care. Going beyond the American Congress to analyze data from 31 democracies, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer and William Mishler show that more women in the legislature leads to increased responsiveness to “women’s issues”, measured in the study as: gender equality in political rights, gender equality in social rights, national maternity leave policy, and gender equality in marriage and divorce laws.
But given the terrain Banda is navigating, will she choose to focus on “sexual violence”? The protests in Malawi’s streets are calling for attention to the corruption scandal and the country’s economic woes. The most recent wave of the Afrobarometer fielded in Malawi just after Banda took office in 2012 asked a nationally representative sample of Malawians to name the top three issues facing the country that the government should address. The top issues mentioned were: food shortage/famine, management of the economy, and water supply. Open-ended responses categorized as gender issues/women’s rights or as violence against women were reported by some respondents, but not enough to garner even 1 percent of responses for either category.
Adams, on the other hand, paints a grim portrait of Malawi’s sexual landscape — sexual violence is epidemic, “rape is repeated with ‘terrifying regularity,’” and there is “a glaring problem in the content of ‘initiation,’ a traditional rite of passage.” How do we make sense of the disconnect between Adams’s view and problems as locally articulated? Is sexual violence a real problem in Malawi?
Good data on sexual violence are notoriously difficult to collect. But some exist. In the most recent Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (the most reliable source of data for the region), of the 5,670 women asked whether they had experience forced intercourse with anyone other than their partner in the past 12 months, 95 women (<2 percent) reported they had.* This is 95 too many, but hardly an epidemic in comparison to problems like food scarcity (a projected 10 percent will be food insecure this year), water availability (50 percent need to walk more than 20 minutes to fetch safe drinking water), and child mortality (1 in 8 children die before reaching age 5), which affect much greater proportions of Malawi’s population. For the sake of comparison, about 1 percent of women interviewed in a national survey conducted in the United States reported having been raped in the past twelve months.
Data like the DHS are also valuable for situating the “problem” of initiation rituals in proportional terms. Outsiders often write about these rituals — a ubiquitous part of the transition to adulthood in most African societies — as exotic and insidious. But the data from Malawi suggest that initiation ceremonies are educational and quite similar to what we, in the United States, tend to think of as “good” sex-ed. Still, of the 23,020 women surveyed by the Malawian DHS, 678 women (about 3 percent) report ever having intercourse as part of a cultural practice. We recognize this as evidence of sexual activity as part of cultural practices and concede that it may, indeed, be harmful. But journalists writing for predominantly American audiences have a responsibility to contextualize anecdotes about harmful cultural practices with data on their prevalence in a population and provide, when possible, a corollary statistic from the United States.
Will Banda tackle these issues, which interest Western readers but affect 2 to 3 percent of Malawian women? Or set her priorities in response to pressing and prevalent local problems and anxieties? A safe motherhood initiative to address the joint problems of maternal and infant mortality, for example, would alleviate the emotional and economic burdens on approximately 52,000 families yearly. Why wouldn’t Banda focus her energy on creating employment opportunities for the 100,000 young men and women who enter the labor market each year and find themselves without jobs?
Ending sexual violence is a tall order in any country. Even if she wins the May election, Banda is no more likely to stop sexual violence in Malawi than Angela Merkel is in Germany. It’s not because she doesn’t care, but because the numbers and the people concur: among Malawi’s many real epidemics, sexual violence ranks awfully low. Even the AIDS epidemic – a deadly problem affecting a greater proportion of Malawi’s population – registers as a lower priority in public opinion than the pressing issues of access to clean water and food security.
The “problem” of sexual violence, as described by Adams, tells us more about the persistent pitfalls of parachute journalism than it does about Malawi. Deaf to the data, Adams characterizes sex-education through “drawings” and “role-play” as pathological as if these same tools aren’t staples in sex-education curricula across the West. And we must ask if what Adams describes as “a shroud of secrecy that surrounds pregnancy” is actually so different from the reasonable levels of privacy Western women exercise during the first-trimester, when risk of miscarriage is high and in-laws (universally) are breathing down our necks in anticipation of grandchildren. Rather than exoticizing faraway places, much can be written about shared experiences — especially given the increasing availability of data about the human condition across space and time.
*CORRECTION: The original version initially stated that 2% was a lifetime estimate.
Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries. Follow her on Twitter at @dadakim.
Jenny Trinitapoli is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Demography and Religious Studies at Penn State University. She is the Principal Investigator of Tsogolo la Thanzi, an NIH-funded research project in Malawi on young adults’ strategies for navigating reproduction in an AIDS epidemic and author of Religion and AIDS in Africa (OUP, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @jennytrini.