Lilongwe is 10,000 miles from Los Angeles. But the capital of Malawi and Hollywood are bound together more than one might think, looking just at the glitz and glamour of America’s movie industry and the relative poverty of the East African country with one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes.
That they share the sense of male entitlement that gives entertainment-industry figures confidence that they can get away with making light of sexual harassment may not be entirely surprising. But 2018 is also showing us something else they have in common: a concerted fight against that attitude.
A song released by Malawian hip-hop musician Mwiza Chavura that appears to encourage rape has served as a lightning rod around which the country’s civil society has come together to seek answers — and not just from the singer. In the song, a man tells a woman refusing his sexual advances that he will one day get her drunk, seal her mouth with tape or socks and rape her. That, in a country already struggling to end sexual violence, which, statistics show, has been increasing each year. In Mzuzu, the northern part of Malawi, sexual assault cases in 2017 were 56 percent higher than in 2016, according to the city’s police spokesperson Maurice Chapola. And nationally, statistics show that 42 percent of Malawian women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and that one in every two girls is married before the age of 18, which is illegal.
Chavura is only a symbol of a larger malaise, and the challenge Malawi faces — and indeed Hollywood in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — is far deeper.
But if Chavura expected his song to just blend into the culture of impunity those statistics hint at, he was mistaken. The backlash has been swift and fierce. In a statement, the country’s other major hip-hop artists came together to assert that “as custodians, gatekeepers and guardians of Malawi hip-hop, we condemn this Mwiza Chavura and whatever he represents.” Citizens’ pressure forced the music label that produced the song to apologize. Online music download sites removed the song amid protests, and even the government, led by Jean Kalilani, the minister of gender, children, disability and social welfare, has condemned the song.
Chavura has apologized, claiming that the song was a piece of his “imagination” and was not meant to be taken “seriously” — while also accusing fellow music stars of doing far worse. “It was sad seeing those that have done even worse things pointing fingers at me and wishing for more bad luck to fall on me,” Chavura’s Facebook “apology” reads.
Chavura was arrested for allegedly producing obscene language and released on bail in late January. But he is just one symbol of a larger problem, and the challenge Malawi faces — and indeed Hollywood in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — is far deeper. Is there a risk that too much focus on an individual case could distract from the broader battle?
According to women’s rights activist Emma Kaliya, not condemning Chavura’s song promptly would have had a far worse impact than the focus the episode has garnered. Chavura’s attempts at minimizing what he did by referring to others and their crimes shows Malawi as a ”society which is morally rotten,” she says. His song, she adds, violates the law by effectively inciting violence against women. “Freedom of speech should not be a warrant for artists to present issues that in turn infringe on other people’s rights, in this case, women,” says Kaliya.
Chavura’s song has lit a spark of anger. The challenge for ordinary Malawians is to keep that flame burning until the country’s record on sexual violence improves.
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