I was recently at a community meeting in Vidzumo, Malawi, where I watched a community volunteer take the members of the Farmers’ Field and Business School (FFBS) through an exercise about the dynamics between men and women in their community. The community members talked a lot about the challenges they face—women have to do almost all of the household chores, and have much higher workloads than the men; if women have access to land at all, it’s of very low quality and not very fertile; and women often have no say in household decision-making.
The community members also talked a lot about progress they have seen—mostly among the families where men have been involved in FFBS activities and have participated in couples’ dialogues as part of CARE’s Pathways program. For these families, they have found that men are more involved in household chores and in caring for the children. Men and women plan household expenses and investments together. Men support their wives in agricultural activities and in earning income.
But when we got to the question about whether women control their income independently, the community surprised me. I would have expected them to say either that they had made progress towards making independent decisions about money, or that they weren’t able to make decisions alone. What I was not expecting was to hear that the question itself was wrong. “No,” they said, “That’s not what we want.” As far as they are concerned, the end goal is not for women to be making decisions alone. What they want is for men and women to be making decisions together, as a family.
There was some debate—women who are running a household alone and women who are in polygamous relationships want to control their own incomes. And some women would like to be able to have a small fund that they can spend without asking for permission. But mostly, what women want is to be equal partners with their husbands, not to overrule them. According to these women in Malawi, the goal CARE has for them is wrong, and I could not possibly be happier about it.
Why am I so pleased to have been mistaken? It is not usually a thrill to stand in front of forty people and hear that you’ve goofed. But this experience tells me two things:
- The community has truly grasped what equality means, and they are willing to stand for it. For this group, women’s empowerment isn’t about women always being right and men always being wrong. It’s not about reversing a history of patriarchy with a system that punishes men instead of women. It’s about working together to get the best outcome for everyone.
- Women in Malawi feel confident enough in their own abilities to stand up and talk in a room full of people. Not only that, they are sure of themselves so they can resist when someone in power—in this case, that includes me—is trying to tell them something that won’t work in their lives. This is a huge change, and something that we probably would not have heard before we started teaching women to stand up for themselves.
- The people in Vidzuma are comfortable enough in their relationship with CARE to tell us no when we get it wrong. They will steer us toward the things that work for them, and push back when something isn’t going to help. That gives me faith that we can work together to get to solutions that work locally.
Being wrong isn’t always a hopeful sign, but in this case, it made me smile all day.