Sharing experiences during COVID-19 – women lawyers in Malawi

With over 160 attendees tuning in, on 24 September before a mixed audience that included senior female and male lawyers, the Law Society and the Malawi Women’s Lawyers Association drew an unprecedented number of attendees. 

The event included discussion of gender equality in the context of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as the role that male ‘champions for change’ can play in breaking down barriers for women lawyers in Malawi.

The panel discussed international and national trends, such as spikes in human rights cases, the impact of COVID-19 and the role of the state in improving and creating policies that protect women and vulnerable people. The panel also addressed current issues in the legal sector in Malawi and discussed action for the future.

Gender equality concerns both men and women

Gender inequality affects both men and women. Because of this achieving gender equality requires the empowerment of both men and women, not only to challenge prejudices and discrimination, but also to ensure that decision-making at private and public levels, and access to resources, are fair and equal.

COVID-19

Like in other jurisdictions, women still suffer the brunt of COVID-19 effects. Women in Malawi have faced more unemployment, increased level of domestic violence and lack of freedoms. This needs to be structurally investigated and addressed through courts for changes to be made.

The panelists concluded that when you protect women and vulnerable people, the whole society benefits. Women lawyers in Malawi hope that, with the right approach and best practice toolkits, due process and stakeholder engagement, the legal sector can address and challenge issues like these head on, enabling better quality of life for all.

The impact on public litigation and other public efforts on women

Members of the Malawi Women’s Lawyers Association have been actively and successfully engaged in litigating human rights cases, which has had a positive impact in the lives of women in Malawi. Litigation has brought forward landmark cases that have helped improve girls and women’s access to justice.

However, women lawyers in Malawi are still experiencing serious challenges including sexual harassment within the legal sector. A phenomenon known as ‘sex for grades’ was mentioned, together with the need for further research into this issue.

The lack of property ownership rights for women in Malawi was also highlighted and panelists suggested State intervention was needed in order to foster change. More policies that strive for gender equality can generate transformational changes that can protect women’s rights, which would inevitably impact on everyday life and change mindsets.

A panelist referred to a recent case concerning the Malawi’s police department, where 18 women were sexually assaulted, which caused uproar in the community and highlighted a need for change.

Parliament has since been served with court papers for judicial review and encouragingly, a new member was appointed in less than 30 days.

Having good female role models

One of the panelists, Innocentia Ottober, shared with the audience her experience in building her own law firm and the obstacles and opportunities this brought into her practice.

At the beginning, she was seriously discouraged, but later, her pioneering approach successfully showcased what female lawyers can achieve with hard work and perseverance. However, she acknowledged that more needs to be done in terms of opening spaces for women in the profession since it remains very unequal.

Male champions for change

There were many male lawyers attending the webinar, illustrating the interest of the legal profession in Malawi on this issue and the need to increase gender equality. Encouraging men, and particularly male leaders, to be agents for change can lead to concrete, effective and measurable actions to address gender inequality

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