Marcel Chisi is the National Chairperson of Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) in Malawi. MEGEN, the oldest men’s organization for gender equality in the country, began in 1997 when it originally assembled as the Malawi Human Resource Centre (MHRC). Since its founding, the group has worked tirelessly to espouse “a philosophy of working with men to engage with fellow men.”
In 1998, Marcel was the only man openly advocating on behalf of the movement, a role he assumed with great pride. An ardent advocate for engaging men in gender issues, he was appalled when other men would call women “whores” and “prostitutes” based on their clothing choices. Remembering one of his earliest protests, Marcel says, “I was the only man [saying] that women could…wear [trousers and miniskirts] as they please, and I received a lot of hostility.” What began as a fight for a woman’s right to choose how to dress subsequently grew into a struggle for total gender equality, spanning over two decades.
Men talking to fellow men
Marcel subsequently became involved in mobilizing groups of men throughout Malawi. For Marcel, an exclusively male organization is key. “As much as we work and support women’s needs…we should acknowledge that we can talk to our fellow men better than women coming to us and [saying]… ‘You are abusing us!’” Marcel believes that “when a man talks to a fellow man, we feel: well, maybe he has a point.” This realization rests at the heart of MEGEN’s work, which focuses on preventing gender-based violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS that arises from unequal power relations. In addition to enhancing women’s participation in the public and political spheres, MEGEN also seeks to rectify “men’s negative use of masculinities” and the detrimental impact it can have on relationships. In an attempt to create a sense of “responsibility” and “equality in their minds,” MEGEN is teaching men about HIV/AIDS and the concept of negotiation within sexual relationships.
Marcel proudly boasts that MEGEN works in 18 of the 28 districts of Malawi, with chapter sizes reaching upwards of 150 active members. Despite a lack of material resources, MEGEN conducts “tailor-made courses” that provide men with basic training on gender issues, as well as capacity-building workshops. Men are forced to deeply reflect on “what it means to be a man” and “what a real man should be.” Marcel highlights MEGEN’s two key strategies for accomplishing its goals, which include their rapid-response teams and the Men Travelling Conference (MTC). Each local MEGEN chapter organizes a rapid-response team, which responds to cases of abuse that “society is failing to confront.” When news spreads about a potentially dangerous situation, the team travels to the household and tries to resolve the issue through “social dialogue.” Team members approach the couple to inform them of their suspicion. Marcel explains, “[We say,] ‘we have been informed there is abuse taking place here, and we would like to see how we can engage and help you out.’” If the team is turned away, more extreme measures may be taken, such as contacting the local authorities. Meanwhile, the MTC aims to end gender-based violence by hiring coaches, including police officers and municipal officials, to reach out to the community and engage others in conversation on eliminating power dynamics that separate men and women.
Today, MEGEN is not alone in trying to engage men in these issues. Other organizations in Malawi are working toward a similar goal of gender equality, but there is little cooperation between them. That’s where Marcel believes that the Malawi MenEngage in-country Network could have a huge impact. By creating a forum where every organization that deals with men can interact and share strategies, the network can build on the unique capacities of each partner. Through the establishment of a coordinated effort between these groups, Marcel hopes to see MEGEN advance from a grassroots enterprise into a network with a national audience, reaching common understandings on gender issues across Malawi.
The challenges facing MEGEN
The challenges laid out before Marcel are significant. Currently, MEGEN lacks sufficient monitoring and evaluation tools, a uniform media strategy, and standardized educational materials, making it difficult to see the full impact of its programs. Similarly, its involvement on a local level has limited the organization from gaining widespread recognition, and even some potential partners are unaware of the work that Marcel and his team-mates do. Marcel attributes these circumstances to the “competitive” nature of NGO work. “[We] don’t want to impose…[or] make other NGOS think [we] are stealing their domain,” he adds. “We want to avoid a ‘them’ vs ‘us’ dynamic.” For that reason, the MenEngage in-country network could be an invaluable stepping-stone, eliminating some of the barriers that persist among different NGOs by facilitating conversations amongst them.
Despite these setbacks, Marcel remains committed. For him, activism has become a lifelong passion and one that he sees himself pursuing for many years to come. During the week, Marcel’s hours are long and the work is tiring, but it helps that he loves what he is doing. “It feels great…This work helps you to become a better person.” Thanks to men like Marcel, others are being inspired to eliminate gender inequality in their communities as well.
By Rachel Fleder and David Friedman