Harassment. Domestic Violence. Abuse. Rape. Ugly words reflecting horrible acts. We refer to these examples of the exploitation of unequal power between genders as gender-based violence. In many ways it is unfortunate that in giving definition to these behaviors, we also sanitize the reality of what gender-based violence means to its victims, to the communities in which it is endemic, and to each of us as human beings. That act of sanitation also makes it far too easy to put the onus on women to advocate for change. Women who are the primary victims.
Globally, an estimated 736 million women – almost one in three – have been subjected to gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. Think for a moment what that means and what the devastating effect that has on the safety, health, and economic security for mothers, sisters, daughters, and their families or communities.
According to UN Women, most violence against women is perpetrated by current or former husbands or intimate partners. And during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence has increased in frequency and intensity for many women as it magnified underlying risk factors around the world. That is not a women’s issue. That is a men’s issue. Around the world, and far too often, boys and men grow up thinking or are taught that the only way to demonstrate one’s strength is through physical dominance or violence. That must change. If we are to end the scourge of gender-based violence, we must call on men to learn that true strength does not come from violence, but from restraint; that power comes from working together; and that when we strive for all people, regardless of gender, to be afforded the opportunity to realize the fullness of their potential, that we can all be stronger – together.
Gender-based violence is an issue that affects all of us, in the United States and Malawi and everywhere else around the globe. As we observe the annual international campaign known as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we write to highlight the importance of governments and individuals working together towards eliminating violence against women. The United States government partners with organizations throughout Malawi to support programming and advocacy efforts to tackle various gender-based violence issues.
Across Malawi, both men and women are using art and poetry as a creative vehicle to bring gender-based violence issues to light in public forums and intimate discussions. At the 2017 Women in Business Conference, I (Qabaniso Malewezi) shared my work “The Unapologetic Apology,” an apology to women for the injustices inflicted by men. The poem attempted to pull back the curtain and address the ongoing battle for women to access equal opportunities and justice not only in Malawi, but around the world.
In Malawian culture, many believe that marriage is not only about the union of two people, but also the union of the families. For instance, when one person in a marriage wrongs the other, his or her relatives apologize for the wrongdoing and are the ones to ask for forgiveness. Through my poem, I question if this family act of apologizing for the wrongdoing inflicted holds the offender fully accountable.
As much as the poem deeply resonated with women, I acknowledge that I should not have apologized on behalf of fellow men. That instead, individuals can and should work to take full responsibility for their actions as a way to commit to an overall social attitude change.
We believe that changes in attitude in both of our countries and around the world can result in societal change, leading to a change in norms and traditions that have perpetuated gender-based violence. And wouldn’t that be the best apology in the end?