Ashley Hamilton, Class of 2020, spent her summer internship in Malawi completing the gender analysis for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Country Development Cooperative Strategy.
It’s no wonder Malawi is frequently referred to as the “Warm Heart of Africa”—in my experience, it has never been so easy to find a friend in a complete stranger. Malawi may not be known for world renowned gastronomy, nor is at the top of many must-see travel lists, but it is East Africa’s little-known slice of paradise.
Agriculture is the biggest source of economic production in Malawi and the sector in which the majority of the population is employed. This is wonderful most of the time, when people can produce enough food to both feed themselves and make money selling what they grow. When the getting is good, you cannot find a strawberry sweeter or a tomato more flavorful than one grown in Malawi. However, changes in climate and weather volatility in recent years has led to an increase in vulnerability for Malawians, whose livelihoods are so closely connected to the agricultural sector.
As if the stunning array of flora wasn’t enough, Malawi is also home to four pristine bodies of water, the largest and most popular of these being Lake Malawi. The quantity and variety of fish in the lakes makes fishing another popular source of income for many Malawians. However, Malawian men tend to profit more from fishing activities. Gender norms and lack of access to capital often subject Malawian women to transactional sex with male fishermen to obtain fish to make a living.
This summer, I’ve been tasked with completing the gender analysis for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Country Development Cooperative Strategy. All USAID programming is required to be gender-sensitive to ensure that women and girls, alongside men and boys, profit from the projects and initiatives being implemented across all countries with USAID missions. Within the context of Malawi, this means considering the ways agricultural programs can mitigate the effects of climate change on female farmers and female-headed households that rely on subsistence farming. It also includes proposing innovative ways to work with the Malawian government to make land rights more equitable and more secure for women. Furthermore, it means looking at how USAID’s implementing partners can work together with Malawian men and women to bridge the gender-gap in fishing activities in order to avoid “sex-for-fish” practices and skewed gender power dynamics. Lastly, it examines gendered barriers that prevent women from engaging in the more lucrative phases of fish production such as smoking fish in place of drying.
Malawi has already made so much progress towards gender equality. Girls and boys enjoy nearly equal access to critical public services like primary education. More women are accessing pre- and antenatal medical care, leading to improved child and maternal mortality rates. Still, there is so much progress to be made.
Gender is a tricky construct. Gender norms and roles are intimately intertwined in culture and tradition, and they are not easily changed. Throughout our coursework within the Global Human Development (GHD) program, we have engaged in discourse about how, globally, women tend to play a disproportionate role in matters of the home, spending much more time than men performing activities like fetching water and child rearing. While it is useful and necessary to discuss ways to include women into more economically productive activities, I can’t help but wonder how we address the vacuum that this progress creates. The fact of the matter is that someone has to perform these activities to make a household run effectively, and I find myself wondering how realistic it is to expect that Malawian men will perform tasks traditionally done by women, especially when USAID-funded projects tend to have such short deadlines.
Furthermore, I am deeply committed to the belief that it is not the job of the outsider to seek to change the culture of another—a view that further complicates this dynamic. I am not under the impression that some practices and beliefs should go unchecked—there are many social and cultural norms that are harmful and unjust that should be put to an end—but I believe that people must be allowed the agency to define when and how their desired sociocultural changes take place. Once those baseline expectations are established, outsiders can fulfill the very important role of the ally—not commandeering the efforts but supporting them.
As I attempt to craft a gender analysis that is both helpful and nuanced, I continue to grapple with feelings of uncertainty about whether it is my place to undertake such an important task in the first place. I wonder if I can truly do the report justice as an outsider. No matter how nice it is to make friends and form genuine relationships in the Warm Heart of Africa, my experiences are not reasonably comparable to living and navigating the gender roles, norms, and inequalities that exist within the Malawian context. Writing this gender analysis is not only a massive responsibility: it has real consequences for real people.
I will continue digging for information, trying to develop nuanced perspectives, and seeking the voices of Malawians to help develop a USAID Country Development Cooperative Strategy that helps support real and sustainable change. Throughout the second half of my internship, I hope to come to some sound conclusions about the aforementioned dilemmas, understanding that change takes time and that learning is a lifelong process while still effectively completing the task to which I was assigned.