Malawi is a largely agricultural country in Africa known for its diverse natural landscapes, large freshwater lake, and friendly people. Located in the southeast portion of the continent, Malawi has experienced many of the same ups and downs of other African countries – specifically: poverty, HIV/AIDS, political corruption, gender bias, and a shortage of medical care. These social and economic challenges have created dynamics in communities which can breed unrest, which has an impact on bullying. Remember, both adults and children can be bullied, and it is most often insecurity and anger which lead to one person bullying another.
Bullying can take place inside the home, the community, and in schools. Whether it is because Malawi is significantly under-developed or because the education system in Malawi lacks infrastructure and resources, children in Malawi do not often receive much education beyond the primary level. School bullying is still an issue, however, especially school-related gender based violence against girls. In fact, the statistics on bullying in Malawi point to a prevalence of violence toward women and girls. That is not to say that boys are not also bullied in school.
Additionally, individuals with physical deformities or disabilities are targets of bullying. Children and adults with HIV, AIDS, and other diseases or physical challenges are shunned, rather than accepted. The site www.our-africa.org points out that “in Malawi, it is not unheard of for disabled children to be found abandoned on rubbish tips.”
The reasons people bully are numerous and hard to define, but it is not surprising that in a country faced with the economic and social challenges of Malawi, it is the class of people seen as “weak,” like females, or “different,” like those with physical deformities or diseases, who become the target of bullies.
Bullying of Women and Girls
A report from the United States Agency for International Development states that “inside primary and secondary schools, children – particularly girls – are victims of abuse often perpetrated by male pupils and teachers.” Sadly, much of the bullying that takes place in Malawi is sexual in nature, and girls are a prime target. The culture in Malawi values male education above female education, so girls in school can be targeted when they appear to be smarter than the boys. To compound the issue, women and girls are hesitant to report bullying or inappropriate sexual advances due to fear of retaliation, ambivalence, or simply not being believed. A 17-year-old Malawi girl told the Huffington Post in an interview that she “didn’t know that what the boys were doing to her was wrong, although it made her feel bad,” commenting “a lot of boys used to grope me, but I was afraid of them beating me if I said no.”
In school and in the larger community, females can also fall prey to “sugar daddies,” which the BBC News reports is defined as “a wealthy, usually older man who gives expensive gifts to a young person in exchange for sexual favors or companionship.” In many cases, these types of relationships lead to the female being exploited.
Bullying can also happen right inside the girl’s home. In Malawi’s male-dominated culture, it is not unheard of for a father, brother, or other male relative to physically or verbally abuse the women in the home. Sadly, girls can be married off in exchange for monetary gain for the father.
Often, the result of bullying of girls in school and in the community leads to HIV, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies. Disease and pregnancy only perpetuates the lower standing of girls in Malawi and feeds the cycle of poverty and inequality for women.
Bullying Based on Appearance and Disability
As was mentioned above, Malawi lacks access to affordable and quality medical care. One of the repercussions of this is the difficulty in finding help for non-life-threatening maladies, like a cleft palate. Operation Smile is an organization which helps children in Malawi and other underdeveloped countries gain access to surgical procedures which not only treat cleft palates and other dental deformities, but enhance their quality of life. The story of Georgina highlights this mission. Georgina was born with a significant cleft palate and as she grew, she was often mocked by the other children in her village. She rarely talked and did not interact with other kids because of her ailment and the bullying she faced. Georgina’s story has a happy ending in that she was able to receive help through Operation Smile, but many kids similar to Georgina face bullying and ridicule due to a culture of ridiculing differences.
Fatima Kalima is a woman from Malawi bringing awareness to the lack of support for people with disabilities. Kalima is wheelchair bound and working to make Malawi more accessible to others with physical disabilities. Kalima points out that children with disabilities in Malawi do not have the same access to education and healthcare as their healthy counterparts, which breeds an environment of separation and bullying.
There is not a foolproof method to stop bullying. Factors in Malawi such as disease, lack of an educational infrastructure, and a cultural bias against women all affect the prevalence of bullying. It is up to people like Fatima Kalima, who founded the Forum for the Development of Youth with Disabilities, Georgina’s parents, who worked to get her to Operation Smile, and every citizen to work toward curing the root causes of bullying in Malawi.