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I recently saw a fascinating website called EmGender: Malawi Gender Justice Research Network, created by Sarai Chisala, who is a Malawian expert on human rights law, especially relating to gender, HIV/AIDS, and race. Inspired by the #16 Days of Activism movement (that publicizes actions for progressive social change worldwide), Ms. Chisala provides portraits of some ordinary and extraordinary people fighting for gender equity and other aspects of social justice in Malawi. Among those she highlights are the Honorable Jessie Kabwila and other members of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus who are advocating the reform of abortion laws. Malawi at present has extremely restrictive anti-abortion laws, and even the exception to save the life of a pregnant woman is interpreted narrowly. As in many countries with restrictive abortion laws, illegally induced abortion under unsafe conditions is common. The procedure accounted for 17% of maternal mortality in 2009, and about 30,000 women are treated for complications of septic abortion each year.

Other women mentioned on the EmGender site include sports stars, clothing designers, diplomats, judges, journalists, entrepreneurs, and a transgender activist. Their achievements are impressive, and Sarai Chisala hopes they demonstrate that Malawian women do not have to look outside the borders of their country for inspiration.

To follow in the footsteps of these role models, however, Malawian girls need education and training — things that were denied to the vast majority during the last decades of the 20th century. So-called structural adjustment policies (SAPs) mandated by international agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and USAID decreed that the government sector must drastically reduce expenses, and this meant, among other things, that primary schools had to impose fees. Those institutions were responsible for holding back the education of millions of girls throughout Africa.

I have only been in Malawi once, in 1997, but it was a memorable trip. Once, while my husband and I were approaching the village of Chembe on the shores of Lake Malawi (a choice destination for snorkeling enthusiasts such as us at the time) our car got stuck in the mud, and the children of Chembe gathered to talk to the tourists and watch them try to get their car out. I was struck by the fact that, while the boys spoke English and were in school, the rural girls (for whom the boys interpreted) were not in school — although they said they wanted to be. As in many places, parents often view girls’ education as less of a priority and in times of economic hardship are more likely to pull their daughters out of school than their sons.

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This photo and the following caption are from http://www.kanengoaids.org/community-responses.html:
“According to UN statistics, although 27% of Malawi’s girls enroll in secondary school just 13% attend. Only a fraction of that 13% actually finish 4 years of secondary school and even fewer will pass their national final examinations that effectively qualify them as ‘graduates.’ [This means that] less than 7% of the women have attained a high school education.”

The effects of internationally-imposed SAPs were disastrous, and their complex consequences continue to be felt to this day. By the early 2000s the outcry from the Global South was too deafening to be ignored even by bureaucrats at the World Bank and USAID, who are normally arrogant and impervious to criticism. The Western “aid” establishment finally devoted some efforts to encouraging the education of girls.

But it turns out that repairing the damage done by decades of neglect of African girls is not so easy. Even when girls’ parents do pay the fees so they can attend school, they sometimes find a hostile environment where they are subject to discrimination, sexual harassment, and even rape by teachers and male pupils. Families often expect girls to continue to contribute to household income, something girls occasionally do by finding an (older) man to defray family expenses in exchange for sexual favors. Reliable birth control is expensive and not always available, so pregnancy is a constant concern and has derailed the ambitions of numerous African school girls. (My colleague Heather Switzer writes about these and other issues facing Maasai school girls in Kenya; similar worries face young women in many parts of the continent.) That is one reason why the work of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, EmGender, and other activists is so important. Getting girls into school is all well and good, but one must also provide the means for them to study in an environment conducive to their success.

Because anti-abortion laws are fundamentally misogynist, they are usually part of a whole complex of neglect and abuse of women and girls. That is true in the U.S., and it is also true in Africa. We should view the struggle for women’s reproductive rights as inextricably linked with other feminist campaigns, as Ms. Chisala does in her website.

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