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Global Roundup: Malawi Women’s Collective, Bangladesh Fighting Cervical Cancer, Poland Queer Activist, Zimbabwe Women Artists, On Being Queer & Dalit
Curated by FG Contributor Samiha Hossain
Kate Mwafulirwa and some of the members of Titukulane, the all-women cooperative of Luwuchi, Malawi. [Feston Malekezo/Al Jazeera]
A new women’s collective in Malawi is helping fishmongers diversify incomes as declining fish populations lead to increased sex-for-fish requests in the country. In recent years, the fish population has been declining largely because of overfishing and climate change, experts say. That decline has become a key driver for transactional sex across Malawi’s lakeshore districts – where fishing is a way of life and means of income – especially in markets where many buyers are impoverished women.
Catherine (not her real name) had dreams of becoming a teacher, but life took a different turn. She dropped out of secondary school when she became pregnant with her first child at 21. Two years later, she began the fish-selling business. In 2017, her husband, a clinical officer, died from malaria, leaving Catherine as her family’s sole breadwinner. With no other source of income, she felt helpless. In 2018, she began engaging in transactional sex with several men just to access fish more easily and sometimes buy at a lower price. That ended last year when a woman in Luwuchi named Kate Mwafulirwa introduced her to a women’s cooperative called Titukulane, which means “uplift each other” in the Chichewa language.
I feel like I’m part of one huge family, we support one another. The group is surely transforming lives slowly. -Catherine
Titukulane’s goal is to empower women to run small businesses and diversify their sources of income. The cooperative members have divided the responsibilities among themselves, with some selling vegetables and fruits, and others selling maize, rice, soya beans, chickens, and potatoes. They share the proceeds and have even established a village bank managed by Mwafulirwa. They meet twice a month to discuss financial management, and savings culture, as well as a rotation of which members go to the beach to buy fish. Instead of buying fish individually, the women now go in groups of three or four, enhancing their bargaining power and making it harder for fishermen to make sexual advances on them.
In 2016, the Malawi government approved the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy, to regulate activities in the sector. However, Friday Njaya, a director at Malawi’s Department of Fisheries, admits that the policy does not adequately consider gender as the authorities responsible for fisheries at the community level, the Beach Village Committees, are still mostly led by men. To fix the gap, Njaya says the department is now collaborating on projects with various NGOs, encouraging women to join more cooperatives like Titukulane.
Cervical cancer is the second most common among women in Bangladesh, and health workers often have to travel long distances to test and treat the condition. All photographs: Farzana Hossen/The Guardian
Cervical cancer is a growing global health challenge, with more than 604,000 new cases diagnosed worldwide in 2020 and an estimated 342,000 women killed. About 90% of the new cases and deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries, where access to preventive measures and treatment is often limited. In Bangladesh, a delta nation crisscrossed by rivers and tributaries, such access can prove particularly difficult, especially for those living on the shifting sand islands – known as chars – of the Brahmaputra and Jamuna rivers.
Friendship is a charity that serves Bangladesh’s hardest-to-reach communities. The organisation began operations in 2002 after pioneering one of the first NGO-run hospital ships in the world. Friendship has been working to screen and prevent cervical cancer since it started, but in 2021, it began implementing the Prevention and Screening Innovation Project Towards Elimination of Cervical Cancer (Prescrip-tec), an EU-funded project that is focused on reaching remote communities.
Friendship runs health-awareness sessions where dozens of women sit cross-legged in a circle and are given information such as the health risks arising from cervical cancer and how to prevent them. After the session, the self-testing kits are handed out and health workers are on hand for women who want to test there and then. Sumi Begum, a Friendship Community Medic-aide (FCM), is one of hundreds of local women trained by Friendship to provide basic medical services in their community, including referrals, ante and postnatal care, nutrition, family planning and hygiene awareness. She notes that most women are ashamed to seek help as it would require an examination of their private parts.
Society teaches girls to be ashamed of their vaginas. From a young age, boys run around naked and nobody says a thing, while girls are taught to cover up and sit with their legs crossed. But vaginas are important. There would be no mankind without vaginas so it’s important that we take care of them. -Nagma Khatun, works for Friendship
Since the Prescrip-tec project began in 2021, 121 women have tested positive for HPV; 140 patients have been treated with cryotherapy and thermal ablation, while 29 were referred for advanced treatment. Yet despite the increased awareness in the area, many women remain reluctant to participate in the programme due to the stigma associated with vaginal health. Still, Friendship persists with this important work and continues to push women to take their health seriously.
No woman should ever have to die because of cervical cancer, a disease that’s entirely preventable. We know what causes it, we know how to prevent it, and it’s time we put an end to it. -Dr Mosamat Kulsum
Margot, front and centre, is facing 5 years in jail. photo: Małgorzata Szutowicz/stop bzdurom
Polish activist Małgorzata Szutowic, (Margot), who faces up to five years in jail for allegedly attacking a van covered with anti-LGBTQ phrases, says the case has left them “deeply traumatised” and without hope for the future of their country. When Margot was first detained over the incident in August 2020, thousands turned out in Warsaw to protest their arrest amid the government’s ongoing attack on LGBTQ rights. Dozens of demonstrators were themselves arrested in the capital in what was later dubbed the “Polish Stonewall” by the media. The van was one of many funded by an ultra-Catholic group that would drive through Polish cities, displaying posters comparing LGBTQ people to paedophiles and blasting slogans over speakers warning about the risk of HIV from gay men. Margot denies charges of damaging the vehicle and attacking its driver.
Margot told Vice that they had no hope of a fair trial in a country where judicial independence has been severely eroded by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. A final hearing scheduled for last month was at the last moment postponed until the summer, dragging out the case for almost three years.
Even if I am found not guilty, I will have lost so much, so much health and time for this. Nothing will compensate for my time in jails, my arrests and so on. The damage is already done. -Margot
Margot is a former member of “Stop Bullshit” – an anarchist, anti-homophobic group that was engaged in direct action protests. Stop Bullshit halted their work shortly after the 2020 arrests, and donated remaining funds worth more than $50,000 (£44,000) to grassroots organisations working on trans rights. Margot now works as an activist promoting access to abortion, which has been all but banned in Poland. The activist said they had been “burned out” not only by the attacks from authorities, but also their treatment at the hands of Poland’s liberal media and other more mainstream LGBTQ rights organisations.
Poland has been ranked as the worst country in the European Union for gay rights, and is notorious for introducing “LGBT-free zones” – areas that have declared themselves hostile to “LGBT ideology”, and where pride marches and other events are banned. Same-sex couples are unable to marry or adopt, and a number of other activists have been arrested.
But some activists still take an optimistic view, pointing out that social surveys show growing support for queer people, even after years of PiS rule and in a country where the Catholic Church holds considerable influence. The head of Fundacja Pro, the group behind the vans at the centre of Margot’s case, was also found guilty in a district court last week of defaming the LGBTQ community with the vehicles. Margot, however, does not necessarily rely on hope.
I don’t care about hope. I know what I need to do now, and that’s enough. Maybe it will be better, maybe it will not, but every fucking day, we are doing something good. -Margot
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Fadzai Muchemwa, National Art Gallery curator, looks at Nothando Chiwanga's art piece, "Immortal", in Harare, Friday, April, 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
A self-portrait shows Nothando Chiwanga covering her face with a yellow miner's helmet while money spills over the edge of a traditional African reed basket she holds in her lap. The artwork, a collage called “Immortal,” challenges age-old gender roles in a strongly patriarchal country like Zimbabwe by juxtaposing a helmet from an overtly male-dominated job with a delicately woven basket commonly used by women at markets.
To survive as a woman in Zimbabwe … one needs a hard hat. -Fadzai Muchemwa, art curator
Chiwanga's “Immortal” is one of 21 works by female artists that have been on show at the southern African country's national gallery since International Women's Day on March 8. The exhibition titled “We Should All Be Human” is a homage to women's ambitions and their victories, Muchemwa said. There are paintings, photographs, textiles, sculptures and ceiling installations. They broach issues like migration, the economy and health, but also far more contentious subjects in Zimbabwe, such as a woman's reproductive rights. Some of the art seeks to provoke discussions around pregnancy and maternity leave.
It’s not often to find women doing such kind of work as mining. In Africa, women are mostly looked down upon. People just see the face or body but the work that you do can also represent your identity. -Nothando Chiwanga
Chiwanga notes how more girls than boys complete elementary school in Zimbabwe but one in three women were married before they reached 18, according to the United Nations children's agency. 26-year-old Chiwanga is one of few young women to graduate from Zimbabwe's National School of Visual Arts and Design. She was one of 30 artists from 25 countries to have works included in the “Notes for Tomorrow” exhibition on the COVID-19 pandemic, which was shown in the United States, Canada, China and Turkey in 2021 and 2022.
The “We Should All Be Human” exhibit in Zimbabwe was designed to raise the profile of young women artists and to encourage them to keep making art amid persistent societal pressures to get married, have children and change their focus to a life of domestic chores.
I have faced a lot of challenges because as a woman you have to be married when you turn into your 20s. Even growing up you will be told a woman must aspire for marriage, you must not aspire to be great. But as an artist I have told myself that I really want to achieve, I need to be big…-Nothando Chiwanga
John Spencer David writes about how when he moved from India to Toronto, Canada, where there are more brown people and queer spaces than other cities, he found that he could be proudly queer, but not Dalit.
John discusses how he could not come out as queer growing up in India as it was not a safe space. He came out as queer as soon as he came to Canada, but he is not out to his immediate family – he says they already have so many issues to deal with.
I’m not religious, but my family is Christian. If you go to the church they know which caste we are. Oh, yes, the churches are also divided. It’s not endemic to one religion. In Christianity and Islam, even in Buddhism there’s casteism. In India, we can’t go to the dominant caste church. -John Spencer David
John also shares the racism he experienced in queer communities in Canada. He felt that he could not be Dalit. However, he decided to come out as Dalit when he encountered the queer community using casteist slurs.
And now, even in the WhatsApp groups, in the community space, I openly tell them my identity and I’m not scared of being out. Even if they bully me, I can stand my ground and I can talk for myself because I’m not scared. And I have allies who would support me on this in those groups. -John Spencer David
Samiha Hossain (she/her) is a student at the University of Ottawa. She has experience working with survivors of sexual violence in her community, as well as conducting research on gender-based violence. A lot of her time is spent learning about and critically engaging with intersectional feminism, transformative justice and disability justice.
Samiha firmly believes in the power of connecting with people and listening to their stories to create solidarity and heal as a community. She refuses to let anyone thwart her imagination when it comes to envisioning a radically different future full of care webs, nurturance and collective liberation.