Old World Sexism

Last year I wrote about a bylaw requiring women and TBAs to pay a fine of a goat to the chief of their village each time they have a home birth. The other day I found out that when a young girl “falls pregnant*” her family also owes a fine to the chief as a penalty. I couldn’t help but ask “what about the boy or man’s family?” even though I knew the answer was that there is no accountability on the male’s part.

*So often the language alone says so much.

It’s bad enough when you know a culture facilitates victim blaming and double standards, but when the policies enforce them so blatantly, it gets to me. Don’t get me wrong—I’m aware of reproductive rights issues we have around the world including at home, but at least our policymakers have to try working a little more discreetly to write sexist legislation.

I also learned that medical students are taught just two categories for induced abortions: “inevitable” or “criminal.” The physicians had a dynamic conversation* about the appropriateness of putting that kind of language on a medical record. Their job is to treat people, not to get involved in legal disputes and criminal cases. The truth is abortions are still illegal here (pretty comprehensively), so technically calling it criminal is accurate. But the fact that stigmatizing language can even be found on your hospital chart demonstrates how pervasive the oppression of women really is.

*I was proud of the clinic leadership for even having the conversation—it was not easy or comfortable, as the Christian faith is a big part of this hospital. Ultimately, they were clear about wanting to do right by their patients.

Working on a research team connected to a clinic means it’s easy to see how these systemic issues touch individual lives.

The founder of CLI, Jeff, told me about a 12 year-old who was raped and impregnated by a local boy and ran away from her parents (no surprise given the environment I just described). She sought refuge with her uncle but was turned away, so was on her own until she came to deliver at CLI hospital. She is one of many cases to inspire the clinic’s new teen motherhood program. They’re working to offer nutritional and parenting support for the mother including a stipend for someone in her family to take time off of work so she can return to school.

It’s a needed service but it’s hard not to think ‘upstream’ about how we can prevent the pregnancies in the first place. Motivating cultural change is so complicated, resource- and time-intensive, so I’m happy to hear that the clinic staff is interested in using the community volunteers organized through my surveillance project as advocates for other initiatives driven by the clinic. These volunteers seem to really believe there is opportunity to improve their villages, and they are one thousand percent critical to driving sensitization efforts. You can’t be a mzungu running around insulting someone’s culture, but a respected champion who shares your vision (maybe an army of them) actually has a chance to incite change.

So, this is where the ‘less data, more doing’ pressure comes from. But evidence has shown time and time again that empowering girls and women promotes growth in all areas (econ/edu/health), arguably with more efficience than any other type of intervention. I hope CLI can learn from those cases and leverage data from Malawi and around the world to move the needle for girls and women right here.

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