Category Archives: Women

Malawi Trip | February 2017

From February 24 to March 12, 2017, with funding support from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, I conducted pre-dissertation research in Malawi. This was a brief trip, but it proved to be very important for ensuring that all the pieces of my dissertation project are moving forward. Since I will return in July for ten months, I needed this time to meet with my research team in country to troubleshoot any problems. In July 2017, we will begin the rollout of the second phase of surveys so it was essential that we all meet and make sure everything is ready to begin the next stage of research.

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Conducting a site visit with a few of my moderators

During this trip, I collected nearly 1,000 completed baseline surveys from Malawian women in 21 research sites across the central region. These surveys are part of my broader dissertation project. The survey asks women questions on a range of topics including: women’s rights, gender roles, health and HIV/AIDS, cultural practices, and laws of Malawi. I am interested in understanding what the average Malawian woman knows about her rights protected by Malawian law, what she knows about how to protect and promote her own health, and her opinions on the roles of women in Malawian society.

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These women teach an “Equipping Women – Empowering Girls” course through the NGO Malawi Matters

Through meetings with my moderator teams, one finding became very clear: women in Malawi do not know their basic rights. My moderators reported that women were “upset”, “embarrassed”, “confused”, and/or “dismissal” of questions related to rights and laws because they didn’t know the answers. In many cases, the moderators reported that answering the survey questions emboldened the women and made them angry, not at the survey, but at their ignorance. “Why don’t we know the answers?? We should know our rights!” Many women said that participating in the baseline survey was an important first step in becoming more empowered individuals.

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Mike Dzembe and I walk through a new community-based model for Malawi Matters that integrates traditional authorities (TAs)

 

One of my moderators begged that when I return in July 2017 I bring copies of the Malawian constitution. For many Malawian women, they do not know Malawi has a constitution; in some cases, they did not even know the meaning of the word “constitution”. How can a woman know her rights in terms of marriage, divorce, rights to work, rights to maternity leave, etcetera, if she does not know that her country has a nationally codified legal system that outlines these protections? As my moderator made clear, it is essential that they be given copies of the constitution because without them, as she explains, “We will have nothing to show them, nothing to teach from. How can we educate the women in our communities if we cannot point to the constitution and read from it?”

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Dissertating at Lake Malawi

This is the first time I have designed, piloted, implemented, and coded my own survey. I’ve already learned so much from round one that will impact how I continue with the second round. For example, when relying on moderators, you must be able to trust that they will do their jobs exactly as trained. During my trip, I was forced to remove four research sites from the study because I could not rely on the moderators to do their jobs. I also ran into problems in terms of funding. I provided each of my moderator teams with a small fund to cover transportation costs so they could reach participants in their homes. Given the very rural nature of Malawi, and the fact that it is the rainy season, many moderators had trouble reaching women participants in the more remote villages. For example, one of the villages I went to on a site visit is found 23km off the tarmac down an unpaved road. Driving through the mountains, it takes almost an hour to reach the village. The moderators in this area had to hire motorbikes or take minibuses to reach even more remote villages to find women to participate in the survey. This meant that the budget I provided them was not enough to cover their actual costs. The problem of transport became a scramble for me during the two weeks as money exchanges in Malawi are rare and ATMs even more so. Anytime we went through Lilongwe I was running to an ATM so I would be ready at the next site visit meeting to address the issue of transport costs.

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Local men haul bags of maize off a truck that is stuck in the mud on the hill, blocking our progress to Chibanzi

The issue of roads/transportation will prove to be the biggest obstacle for me to conduct fieldwork in Malawi. During my short time there, we had a van slide off the road into a deep ditch, we had to turn around several times because of impassable roads, we almost got stuck more than once, and we once had to stop 2 km short of a village due to the road being blocked by a maize truck stuck on a hill. We watched as men from the village volunteered to unload over 100 bags of maize from the back of the truck to make it lighter so it could be pulled up the hill by ropes. As we watched, another smaller truck was pushed and pulled up the hill with ropes by a group of almost 30 men. This is a normal occurrence during the rainy season. Another issue is the presence of road blocks. All roads in and out of Lilongwe contain police checkpoints and it is quite common for the police to extract bribes before cars can pass, especially if white people are in the car. Our driver was “fined” for missing a newly required form of certification on his license. Once we passed the checkpoint he clarified that the new certification was bogus and that he talked them down from a 10,000-kwacha bribe to a 5,000-kwacha bribe. We joked that from then on, all the white people in the van should duck as we approached a checkpoint!

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Mphatso (far left) and her family during a site visit; she is a moderator

My favorite part of this trip was meeting the team members I had never met before, but with whom I’ve been working via email for months. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to move forward with my project. Since I will live in Malawi for ten months, I was excited to build a community of friends and colleagues on whom I can call when I return in July. For my short two weeks in Malawi, I was surrounded by a great team of Malawians and Americans. Sharing meals, long car rides, tea breaks, and meetings, I gained a sense of clarity about the direction I see the rest of my research taking.

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Real fried chambo

I’ll close this post by telling a funny story. I spent the entire two weeks in the company of two Malawians, David and Luke. David is the Regional Coordinator for Malawi Matters in Malawi. During a site visit near Lake Malawi, we went to a restaurant where the guys were excited to order chambo, a popular type of fish eaten from the Lake. The restaurant, which sits right on the beach, did not have any chambo, so they were forced to order chicken instead. The next day we went to an ex-pat restaurant in downtown Lilongwe. They were excited to see chambo on the menu and ordered it immediately. When our food came out I heard the guys mumbling to each other in Chichewa. I asked what was wrong and they said, “This is not chambo. We don’t know what it is, but it’s not chambo.” They called the waiter over to say there was a mistake. The waiter got this big, sheepish smile and said, “Um….yeah, It’s not chambo. It’s tilapia. We don’t actually have chambo, but foreigners don’t know the difference. Where are you from?” In unison David and Luke responded: “Malawi!” Don’t ever try to swindle a man from the Lake with fake chambo; they know their chambo!

USAID Fellowship Winner!!

Shameless personal plug time! I am very excited to announce that (for the second time) I have been selected to receive a USAID|Notre Dame Global Development Fellowship provided in partnership with the Initiative for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. This $17,000 award will fund a substantial portion of my research and living expenses during the approximately 10 months I will spend in Malawi conducting dissertation research during 2017-2018. Working in partnership with the NGO Malawi Matters Inc. and the University of Malawi’s Centre for Social Research (CSR), I will be examining actor approaches to ending the practice of child marriage in Malawi. I look forward to sharing more updates on this soon!

Why Gender Studies?

Girls in ZambiaI was at a regional political science conference a couple years ago presenting a paper I wrote on the signing of the 2013 peace agreement in the DR-Congo. My paper focused on highlighting the failures of the 1999 Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement and outlined how these failures could be sidestepped in the new agreement. When it came time for the moderator to ask me questions and offer critiques he said, “You mentioned women several times in this paper. You kept saying women need to be involved in the process. Why? Why is it so important to you that women get involved?” He was not being ironic. He was legitimately questioning my decision to include Congolese women in the peace process. In that moment I felt a shift in my interests and worldview. Everything changed. There I was, standing in a glitzy hotel conference room next to the table of other presenters (all men), facing the moderator–a man who had achieved the highest level of education possible and was tenured at a well-known institution. Looking past the moderator, I scanned the room and saw that I was the only female present. My task, if I chose to accept: explain to a room full of college educated men why women matter.

For me, Gender Studies is about bringing a voice to the voiceless. This goes so far beyond just being a voice for women. In many of the topics I study that cross political science and peace studies, it is children who are voiceless. Minorities, the oppressed, the lower classes, refugees–the structures of society often inherently limit their agency and stifle their voices. Adopting a gendered lens allows you to see the world from a new perspective, one that amplifies the voices of these otherwise voiceless groups. This perspective can be a powerful tool for examining the complexities of a political issue, often leading us to find new policy recommendations that actually stand a chance at bettering society. If my own colleagues cannot understand the merit of giving women a voice, then the outlook may seem bleak. However, in Gender Studies I find hope–hope for equality, hope for change, and hope for deeper understanding.

See the original story featured on the Notre Dame Gender Studies Program website HERE.

My First Published Book Review!

Shameless self-promotion alert: I’m published again!!

The April 2015 edition of the Gendered Perspectives on International Development Resource Bulletin is finally available online and it features a book review from yours truly. Read it HERE.

This is a great Bulletin published several times a year that is run out of Michigan State University by the Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen). The Bulletin is a great, go-to resource for all things gender and development. In each edition, the editors compile lists and reviews of some of the most recent research, books, articles, upcoming conferences, calls for papers, and many other forms of media that all explore the myriad issues related to gender and international development.

defyingFor my part, I reviewed a great book by Albrecht Schnabel and Anara Tabyshalieva titled Defying Victimhood: Women and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (United Nations University Press, 2012). This book provides a great overview of the current scholarship exploring women and their roles in the post-conflict peacebuilding process. The book is ideal for scholars interested in entering the world of gender and conflict, but it is written in a way that even the lay person can enjoy it. Each chapter is written by a different author or set of authors with various academic backgrounds and geographic areas of focus. While the layout of the book is useful in guiding the reader through the literature, you don’t necessarily have to rad the book cover to cover. Pick a chapter that interests you and dive in!

If you want more recommendations of books on gender and development, gender and conflict, or gender and peacebuilding, just ask! And if YOU have recommendations for me, leave a reply below! 

 

National PhD Level Gender Gaps

Follow the link below for an interesting interactive visual provided by Scientific American that details the gender gap in 2010 at the PhD level for 56 nations. This visual is quite interesting, not only to know that in the US females are roughly on par with males at receiving a PhD, but in some surprising countries like Mongolia, Latvia, and Uruguay, females are far outstripping their male counterparts. The winner? Portugal, by a whopping 62%. Keep up the good work ladies!

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-nations-fare-in-phds-by-sex-interactive/

Too Taboo: Feminine Hygiene in Zimbabwe

Recently, the Huffington Post’s Global Motherhood reported on a story first featured by NewsDay, a major news outlet in Zimbabwe. According to these articles, the situation for women in Zimbabwe in terms of access to feminine hygiene products has become dire. For NewsDay, reporter Veneranda Langa explains that, due to the high taxes and tariffs charged by the Zimbabwe government on imported goods like sanitary wear, women and girls must resort to using old strips of clothes, maize stalks, leaves, even cow dung as pads during menstruation. While these improvised substitutes for sanitary pads and tampons are obviously unhealthy and often ineffective, a further lack of steady and safe access to clean water with which to clean the body during menstruation further complicates this issue.

In Zimbabwe, like in many places in the world, menstruation is a taboo subject that is not discussed openly. For many women and girls living in more rural areas, families can barely afford the basic necessities needed for daily life like food, water, and shelter. Most females must make due with improvised sanitary wear, which is often used pieces of clothing, or sometimes wadded up toilet paper. The problem is that for women and girls who are especially active, whether at school or work, they are under constant fear that these improvised sanitary pads will come loose and fall out, which would cause endless embarrassment and shame.

Zim GirlsFor many girls, a lack of sanitary wear at school is a serious problem. Without access to sanitary wear, girls are missing school for fear of soiling their uniforms and making their period public knowledge. One teacher explained that many of her students who could not afford sanitary wear would use leaves as pads, and some even went as far as to use maize cobs. These desperate girls insert the rough cobs into their vaginas, which act as makeshift tampons. With no way to sterilize the cobs before inserting them, the girls wear them for hours to get through the school day.

When women are forced to use such poor substitutes for sanitary wear, gynecological issues can become quite serious. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that 63% of gynecological diseases are caused by using poor quality sanitary products, as women are vulnerable to infection during this delicate period and weakened immunity can lead to more serious health threats. Women using cheap sanitary products often suffer from chronic yeast infections, irritation, pelvic inflamatory disease (PID), and other gynecological diseases.

In Zimbabwe, the price of proper sanitary wear is the main factor forcing women to use cheap and unsanitary alternatives. For example, in order to import saintary wear into Zimbabwe, a compnay must pay the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority 20% duty and 15% vaule added tax, making the price of the items sold in shops completely unaffordable. Prices range from $0.99-$3.25 for a pack of roughly 8-10 pads. Tampons are much more costly, with the average pack of 10 costing anywhere from $2.00-$4.00. While this does not seem like much, it means that for the average woman who has a period spanning 3-7 days, depending on her flow, she may have to spend and much as $20 a month on sanitary wear. That totals roughly $240 per year. In a country where over 72% of the poluation lives in poverty and the average GDP since 2009 has been roughly $900, you can see how impossible it would be for a woman to dedicate $240/year on sanitary wear.

Until something can be done to lower the high costs of importing these goods into the country, women and girls in Zimbabwe will continue to suffer unduly from this lack of access to a basic human need.