Changing the law to change attitudes


To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women Refuge CEO Sandra Horley CBE was interviewed by the British Council.

Sandra is a committed campaigner on behalf of abused women and children who advises governments internationally on gender-based violence and criminal justice. She looks back at an innovative workshop on women’s rights that she delivered in Mangochi, Southern Malawi, in 1995 at the invitation of the British Council. It resulted in the criminalisation of marital rape in Malawi. But was a change in the law enough to change things? Reena Johl, Country Director, Malawi, goes on to tell us about the progress since that time and what still needs to done.

Remembering 1995 – Sandra Horley
Back in 1992, I was delighted to receive a letter from Liliana Biglou – the Country Director of the British Council in Malawi at the time – inviting me to run a workshop on domestic violence in Mangochi, in the southern end of Lake Malawi. At the time, this was an innovative and highly controversial project for Liliana to bring to Malawi. She asked me to give a keynote speech and to bring lessons and learning from the UK to help Malawi devise its own, local, solutions to the global problem of domestic violence. Refuge was undergoing great change in those days, and my small team and I were working, flat-out, to turn a small local charity with a handful of shelters in London, into a national lifeline for abused women and children with a national 24 hour helpline and an infrastructure of support services up and down the country. I had given evidence in a number of high-profile murder and manslaughter cases where the accused was an abused woman and a few months later the then HRH Princess Diana would help us relaunch the organisation under the new name of Refuge.

We were extremely outspoken on the UK’s inadequate police response to victims of domestic violence and Liliana had heard us campaigning in the media as we continued to shine a light on gender inequality and pull domestic violence out of the shadows.

The British Council had convened a wide range of key civil society influencers – judges, politicians, tribal chiefs, women’s rights campaigners – and we enjoyed three or four days of robust discussion and heated debate. I was struck, as the week progressed by just how receptive the audience was on the whole. Because I cannot overstate how radical – and truly ground-breaking – it felt back then, to stand in front of the Malawian judiciary and argue that a man had no right to rape and beat his wife. Many of the senior members of the judiciary – including the Chief Justice – simply did not agree. To say it was controversial was a huge understatement. After all, rape in marriage had only been criminalised in the UK the year before and many people still felt that domestic violence was a private issue that should be kept behind closed doors. In the UK it was still seen as controversial to point out that domestic violence was against the law and that men had no right to abuse and intimidate their wives and children. But during this workshop, which Liliana had bravely convened, the sense of possibility in the air was palpable and we managed to galvanise that goodwill and appetite for change. And shortly afterwards, I was ecstatic to learn that Malawi had passed a law criminalising rape in marriage. It is such an honour to have been able to witness and play a part in such a fine example of institutional and attitudinal change in action.

People often ask me how I change attitudes to domestic violence because it’s not easy to uproot generations of negative attitudes and prejudice that enable abuse to thrive in any society. But I think the best way to attempt to do it is to try to get people to understand that domestic violence affects everyone and that everyone has a duty to put an end to it. Because it is a human rights issue. It is in all our interests to ensure that women and children can be safe and free. I try to show people the impact of abuse – on the individual – and on the whole society – to show people the debilitating cost of domestic violence and the importance of positioning it firmly in the context of criminal justice.

Looking back now, the visit to Malawi was important for so many reasons. It was my first visit to Africa, as a start, and it was one of the very first international visits that I conducted in my capacity as CEO of Refuge, to share learning and work with other countries to develop joint strategies to tackle violence against women. I have since taken part in many similar programmes with the British Council, including, most recently, a programme in Egypt to reduce domestic violence and increase the capacity of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice. And this time last year I was honoured to visit China and Vietnam, looking at the nexus between domestic violence, human trafficking and modern slavery. But not only that, it has formed the basis of a life-long friendship with Liliana.

Looking at Malawi today – Reena Johl
Looking back at the achievements of the British Council and our partners allows us to appreciate the impact we make. Yet it also calls attention to the work still to be done. That landmark change in the law in Malawi was only one step on a long journey to change attitudes. Honurable Justice Zione Ntaba, a Chevening Scholar and currently the youngest female judge in Malawi explains her concerns.
‘Despite Malawi having a robust legal system in terms of protection of human rights there are still concerns around gender-based violence, especially intimate partner violence. A solid review on sexual offences is warranted. For instance, marital rape continues to be a silent crime in Malawi.’
A law is of benefit, only if a society feels it should use it. In Malawi the first national survey into violence against children and young women in 2013 (funded by DFID) found that two in five females and one in five males aged 18-24 believed it’s acceptable for a man to beat his wife in some circumstances. Furthermore, 40 per cent aged 13-24 years believed a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together.
Alongside work with formal legislation and law enforcement, those working to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) are concentrating on prevention, starting with the young. This is something we are particularly well placed to address as a cultural relations organisation as it focuses on understanding and challenging cultural norms around gender based violence and ultimately changing attitudes and behaviours.

In Festival of Ideas, a youth engagement project which used creative means to explore accountability with a thousand young Malawians, almost 50 per cent identified genderbased violence and sexual harassment in schools and the community at large as an issue they were concerned about. More importantly they were motivated to take action and make a change. We are launching the final stage of the project this November, which will support a selected group to develop and implement a campaign among their peers and school communities to raise awareness of their rights and responsibilities.
This all highlights that we must not rest or get complacent. Across the region in SubSaharan Africa, we are marking the UN Elimination of Violence against Women day on 25 November and participating in the following 16 days of activism. The 2017 theme is ‘Leave no one behind – end violence against women and girls’. In Malawi we are will be working with local partners on a targeted social media campaign, sharing content generated by young Malawians to create awareness amongst young people.