Dozens of women took to the streets of Malawi’s capital on Monday to protest against sexual violence after a series of alleged police assaults on women last year.
About 90 protesters, most of them women, marched through Lilongwe in silence to mark She Decides Day – a global movement launched in 2017 after organisations that talk about abortion were barred from receiving US government funding.
“I’m here because I am against men raping women each and every day,” said Eunice Kachimela, a 13-year-old student from Lilongwe.
“My friend was raped and we took the case to court, which made me so passionate. We need to speak up so things can change.”
21 million girls aged 15–19 fall pregnant yearly in developing regions, and 16 million give birth. Unwanted and forced pregnancy is preventable, but the right to contraception and safe abortions is under attack.
— Swedish MFA (@SweMFA) March 2, 2020
Chimwemwe Mlombwa, one of the organizers, said some of the protesters chanted a traditional saying that translates as “every girl has a right to decide, don’t ruin her future simply because she is a girl”.
Today I had the privilege of celebrating #SheDecidesDay with these amazing young girls! I love working with and for these beautiful girls!
— Miss Mlombwa♡ (@Tha_Compass) March 2, 2020
The march comes amid a rise in feminist activism in Malawi, where rape is widespread, but rarely reported due to stigma, lack of access to the judicial system and a cultural normalization of sexual abuse.
But the issue burst into the open last year when a number of women and girls accused the police of sexually assaulting them during violence that followed a disputed presidential election in May.
Malawi’s Women Lawyers Association has filed an application for a judicial review, arguing that a “failure to investigate promptly and take action against perpetrators violates the women’s constitutional rights”.
Police spokesman James Kadadzera said via WhatsApp message the force was currently investigating complaints from 17-women. “Everybody should be assured that we are doing all we can to make sure we finalize the investigations,” he said.
Among the protesters on Monday were a small number of female sex workers including Chiletseo Chakungu, 45, who arrived with traditional chitenje (African print fabric) wrapped around her waist and a skirt and fishnet stockings underneath.
“I had to wrap this around me because otherwise I would have been booed or harassed at the vendors market on my way here,” said Chakungu. “But I like wearing this and it’s my choice.”