A child protection specialist discusses what can be done on the ground to root out harmful gender norms that perpetuate violence against women and girls.
23 November 2021 By Janet Liabunya, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Malawi
When I was growing up in Mzuzu City, Malawi, people would refer to my father and my siblings as “Kayuni and Sons” – except, my father did not have any sons. We were all daughters. Wherever the other fathers took their sons, my father took my sisters and me: to the bank, the farm, to do business – delivering and selling produce – and, of course, to arts and music festivals. He drilled into us that we could do whatever boys could.
The fond memories of the powerful, encouraging words of my father keep me going today. Whenever I succeeded in something, my short father would tell me, “You make me taller.” I remember entering secondary school, which was far away from home, and being selected to represent my school in a prestigious competition known as “top of the class”. The whole nation would be listening on the radio to students all over the country compete in this contest. “I am proud of you,” my father wrote in a letter to me. “When you come home, you will find me taller.”
Of course, countless girls across the globe grow up hearing – and seeing – otherwise. At home, their parents may have unequal responsibility for household chores, or imbalanced bargaining power in financial decisions. In schools, girls may receive less support than their male classmates to learn and build skills critical for desirable or well-paying careers. And even at the highest levels of society, gender norms can harden into regulations that perpetuate inequality, like laws that prohibit women from inheriting property.
In every society on the planet, gender norms have also been known to turn violent. An estimated one in three women and girls worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. In Malawi, violence against girls is also high, with 1 in 5 girls experiencing sexual violence, 2 in 5 experiencing physical violence, and 1 in 5 being subjected to emotional violence. Concerted, global effort is needed to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.
I’m proud to be a part of the largest such effort in the world, the Spotlight Initiative. As part of this initiative, UNICEF – together with our partners across UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women and the European Union – is focused not only on responding to forms of violence, but uprooting them.
I know from personal experience the important role that parents and caregivers play in shaping our norms, beliefs and identities. Only by working with parents – especially fathers – alongside educators and young people, can we begin to prevent violence before it starts. UNICEF and the Spotlight Initiative focus on creating a protective environment, addressing social norms and empowering the most vulnerable with personal protection strategies.
For me and my team of child protection specialists in Malawi, this means:
- Supporting television and radio programs to better educate people on respectful family relationships, non-violent forms of conflict resolution and parenting, and ways to promote healthy and safe home environments. We’ve reached over three million people (and counting) in Malawi this way.
- Reaching out to boys, specifically, to help them recognize, respond to and report violence against women and girls, by using their own voice and power to stand up against it.
- Working within the education system – with teachers and school administrators – to implement non-violent and positive discipline approaches, and recognizing warning signs of gender-based violence in children. Schools should never be a place where children learn to accept violence: It should be the place they learn to challenge it. Through Spotlight’s Safe School Programme, over 200,000 adolescent learners in Malawi are now able to detect gender-based violence, and know how to report it to relevant authorities for action and redress. This has already led to the identification of hundreds of cases of child marriage and their immediate referral to the appropriate authorities and other Spotlight partners for additional services.
My own upbringing showed me that parents and educators need to sing from the same song sheet when it comes to protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation. Otherwise, children will hear one thing at school and another at home.
Still, it’s not enough to root out the harmful norms that breed violence – it is critical that we also have robust systems that can respond to cases.
Having served as a public prosecutor for some years before joining UNICEF, I worked with the criminal justice system to respond to rights violations, especially against women and girls. Even today, I spend my weekends, evenings and leave time on pro bono cases. This has helped to keep my contributions to UNICEF’s programme planning grounded in the realities of life in Malawi.
I see every day how women and girls, especially those in rural areas, struggle to pursue justice. The barriers stack up: Hidden costs, like the cost of transport to the courts to file a case, or the cost to get a national identity card, cut women off from justice systems. In a society where family finances are controlled mostly by men, this imbalance has a devastating toll.
So, when I work with my colleagues on designing and implementing programmes under the Spotlight Initiative, we bring an intimate knowledge of the response gaps.
For example, we’ve installed mobile courts that go to the people, rather than forcing women and girls to find them. We’ve supported the waiver of court fees, and have provided transportation for the police to respond more quickly. And, at UNICEF Malawi, we’ve appointed an experienced gender specialist to make all our work gender-responsive and transformative in the areas that most closely impact girls’ quality of life: safety and protection, clean water, proper sanitation, nutritious foods, good health care and more.
My father taught me to stand up for the vulnerable and the voiceless regardless of societal norms. The Spotlight Initiative has brought to the fore how important it is that we invest in prevention and response, to address the heart of systematic power issues preventing women and girls from accessing the services they need and from pursuing the opportunities they deserve. I am proud to be involved in this work, to be part of an agency that values my experience as a public prosecutor, and to manifest the excellent example that my father set for my sisters and me. I know my father certainly agrees.
This blog post was originally published on the UNICEF website on 23 November 2021.