“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me”

This is a phrase I was taught to stand up to a bully however it raises deeper questions around the concept of violence.

When I arrived in Lilongwe I didn’t associate what I saw on my way to work as violence. In Malawi one key area of COWLHA (Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS) is fighting gender-based violence (GBV). Initially when I hear the word violence, physical acts of violence come to mind because I’ve been taught to associate violence with aggression and pain first in a physiological sense.

Direct GBV can be broken down into physical, sexual, emotional and economic. Researching GBV for COWLHA reminds me how equally detrimental economic and emotional forms of violence can be, despite not being as visible to the untrained eye. While I was in Malawi I got the opportunity to visit rural areas and observe monitoring and evaluation for a program focused on GBV. I was surprised to hear many people talk about economic violence. Many men spoke about how because of the project they started budgeting and sharing family income with their wives. Although economic violence may not be as graphic and attention grabbing as physical or sexual, it can still have harmful effects. 

Gender occurs from social norms and values that determine roles for men and women based off biological differences. Therefore, GBV is no more than a manifestation of unequal power relations that leads to the discrimination against women. Everyday I saw GBV through gender roles. For example on my way to work as I passed numerous women carrying children on their backs or selling large buckets of fruit, while the minibuses I rode were predominantly filled with men. GBV can occur on a personal or structural level. While I couldn’t know if every woman I passed on my ride to work experienced economic violence in her home, I was seeing examples of GBV on a structural level.

COWLHA’s project on GBV didn’t just educate communities but also provided individuals and communities with some economic training such as Village and Savings Loans (VSL) programs. Providing economic training to women along with education has the potential to help address GBV on a direct level through increasing knowledge while also fighting against economic forms of structural GBV.

GBV doesn’t just exist in Malawi but continues to persist to different degrees around the world, such as cat calling. Many countries have made progress obtaining equal rights and opportunities for women.  Just as the underlying social norms and values didn’t appear overnight, changing them will take time. Therefore I believe successfully eradicating GBV will require a definition of violence that recognizes all forms of harm and changing the social norms and values behind GBV.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but remember words can also harm me.”