Ensuring that every woman lives a life of dignity and freedom from violence

EngenderHealth is excited to announce Grace Malera as the Malawi Project Director. Ms. Malera is gearing up to create policy and strengthen existing programs to support survivors of gender-based violence.

 Grace Malera

Tell us about your background and how you got into this field of work.

I am a human rights lawyer with 15 years of experience in gender and women’s rights issues. I also served as the Executive Director of the Malawi Human Rights Commission for six years, where I honed skills in women’s and children’s rights, sexual and gender-based violence, human rights–based approaches, health systems and governance, and resource mobilization.

I’ve spent my life engaging in activism for women’s rights and have always had a strong passion to work toward an equitable world for men and women, and boys and girls. The focus of my work has always been in Malawi.

As a professional, what inspires you?

I’m personally motivated by the pursuit of excellence in every way possible. I want to reach out to the less fortunate and vulnerable in a way that is empowering. I’m inspired by the belief that human rights and gender justice have enormous potential to break the cycle of disempowerment and vulnerability to gender-based violence and want to work with the proper tools to bring about necessary change.

Speaking of your inspiration, let’s discuss the project—what are the primary project objectives?

I see gender-based violence as a holistic issue. My objectives are to strengthen the capacity of civil society and government agencies working with women and girls in a way that truly implements prevention and response. In particular, I aim to work with gatekeepers of societal and social norms of character, including religious and community leaders, to coordinate comprehensive services. The aim is to use these methods to improve the quality of care for gender-based violence sufferers, increasing them while decreasing the number of incidents of gender-based violence in the region.

We will tap into a multisectoral approach when working with these community leaders to build alliances across sectors. How can communities be strengthened to respond to gender-based violence? What efforts are being taken to support survivors, especially community-based efforts? How can we strengthen disciplinary coordination and strengthen existing services?

What are the efforts necessary to change cultural norms that turn a blind eye to or enable violence? How do you work to lift taboos regarding women seeking help in a violent situation?

The Malawian government has made strides in its dealings with gender-based violence work, including an amendment to the Constitution and repealing certain obstacles to care for gender-based violence. The political will of ministries reflects a commitment to addressing this issue beyond laws and policies. The UN and African Union are engaged, and the current President of Malawi is a HeforShe champion.

However, people are often socialized by value systems to illustrate acceptable norms. There’s a reason why a woman who is being abused wouldn’t walk out and tell a neighbor what’s happening—this goes back to the politics of empowerment. How do we lift taboos and stereotypes away from abusive situations? I think there are two steps.

First, there must be an educational approach. The law, with all of its potential, does not address the education aspect. This method must mobilize communities to adopt gender-transformative attitudes, power relations, and stereotyping to a point of enabling people to define for themselves what could be wrong with the current social and structural systems. This allows community members to be active participants, not passive victims.

Second, we must work with and trust our community custodians and gatekeepers. I intend to work with them so we can influence the kind of change we want at local levels, because these are the people who enforce value systems for communities. Currently, power relations are tipped in favor of patriarchal norms, which give men and boys an upper hand. We can work with community leaders to help change these norms in small doses.

How does the work engage men?

Currently, organizations in Malawi are running campaigns where men are being used as role models in championing the status quo. There is a pool of men working by themselves or alongside women and girls as role models and service providers in this effort. This is good, but a concern is that men and boys often find themselves expected to be part of a response mechanism. We must address how to engage processes of unlearning socialized and normalized stereotypes, whether or not they were espoused intentionally.

What are some of the moments that make your work feel worth it—obstacles you have overcome, or good moments that feel rewarding?

Watching women and girls get out of the cycle of disempowerment, hearing women say things like “enough is enough”—these moments are important to me.

Right now, we are working toward a parliament that reflects gender equality. There are several moments that translate from a community level to a policy level, especially with the inclusion of more women into parliament. These moments make me say “You know what, even if it  means one day at a time, one woman or girl at a time, the gains have been made, will continue to improve, and that means something.”

What is your goal for future generations of women and girls in Malawi?

My vision is a Malawi where gender and sex will not be the defining or determining factor for what opportunities a boy or girl will have, or what a man or woman will turn out to be. Gender and sex should not determine who you are, what you are capable of, and what you can and will achieve.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I look at my role with EngenderHealth as a career shift that I am excited about. I have spent many years working on the ground, with people, implementing these policies. When you’re on the ground implementing, you work one-on-one with people. Now I’m on the other side and can say that I have the experience and work with communities that can allow me to see where problems are and enable me to put in the proper efforts to enable change. I am eager to implement policy that is worthwhile and transformative.