Thoughts and Opinions

Sometimes I share my thoughts and opinions on books, feminism, and history.

Changing Rape Culture

I’ve decided to change gears today and to write about something that is hard to write about and hard to talk about. Three things caught my attention today; two young men were found guilty for raping an unconscious girl at a party (see article), a Swiss woman was gang-raped outside a small village in India (see article), and my friend Erin shared with me the fact that rape is the first sexual experience of 20% of Ghanaian women. These things all frustrate me and I think it’s time we talked about them. I’m certainly no expert on rape, but I am tired of the way we talk about (or don’t talk about) rape in our society. I’m tired of a culture that blames the victim and doesn’t talk about sexuality and respect.

As a young female, rape has always been by biggest fear when traveling. When I went to Malawi at 20-years old, my biggest fear was that I was going to find myself in an uncomfortable situation, outside of my control, that might result in rape. When trying to meet new people in London, I was consciously aware of the guys I was meeting and the situations I would put myself in with those guys. When walking back to my flat at night, it was instinct for me to stick to busy streets and I was always intensely aware of my surroundings until I reached the safety of my house. I’m sure I’m not the only female that thinks this way.

I’ve always watched my drinks when I’m out with friends. I’ve always been careful about the company I might attract. I’ve felt a relative amount of security because I thought I never put myself in situations where there was the potential for rape. The problem is that I should never have to think like this. What a woman wears or whether or not a girl is drunk should not constitute an excuse for why she might have been raped. Instead of analyzing the actions of the victim, we need to be talking about a culture where boys don’t see anything wrong with sexually assaulting an unconscious girl; a culture where men feel entitled to sex and where women don’t feel safe walking down the street at night.

The thing that struck me about the cases in the news this week is that they both involved groups of people. The friends of the two football players that raped a girl at a party participated in that crime by not stepping up to help the young girl, by laughing at her shame, and filming as she was assaulted. On two different occasions, groups of men in India got together and thought it was acceptable to gang rape a woman on vacation with her husband and to sexually and physically assault a young student on a bus (see article). 20% on Ghanaian women should not be dealing with rape as their first sexual experience. Clearly we are living in a society that doesn’t talk about equality, respect, and sexual expression.

I know ranting about rape culture is not very effective, but if we’re ever going to change it, we need to start talking about it. Advising women on how to be safe and not get raped is not addressing the causes for why it happens. Engineers Without Borders put a lot of focus on gender representation for International Women’s Day this month and it got me thinking about the inequalities that exist within my own profession and the way that we address (and ignore) gender within our respective cultures. Our overseas partner Erin Aylward wrote a great blog on how we’re not afraid of changing culture, but of addressing the deep-rooted issues that result in that culture.

To finish, this is a completely different type of blog for me and it was difficult to write. However, I’ve always felt that my voice does have power and that it’s important to share it, even if I’m not that eloquent. While the circumstances that started the discussion are awful, I’m hopeful about the conversation that has resulted from it. I hope we can keep talking about it and I welcome your thoughts and comments.


Categories: Thoughts and Opinions | 4 Comments

A World of Creative Thinkers


As most of you know, I’ve been involved with Engineers Without Borders for more than 4 years now. I worked overseas with EWB in 2010 and I was the President of the MUN chapter in 2011 and 2012. I originally created this blog to chronicle my experiences in Malawi. I’ve learned so much through my work with EWB and have been given so many wonderful opportunities. I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve worked with in Canada and in Malawi and by the movement that EWB has been creating. Every year, EWB does a holiday campaign to promote its overseas programs and raise money to support them. I’ve decided to dedicate this blog entry to EWB and to share with you why I’ve given more than 4 years of my life to this organization! I hope you’ll take the time to read this and consider making a donation. I’ve posted the link to my campaign below.

Thanks, Maria

2036: the year a baby born in 2012 will graduate with a university degree. This is the theme of EWB’s campaign this holiday season. What do you imagine the world will look like in 2036? What’s your dream for the future? My dream is that the babies born this year, whether in Canada, England, or Malawi, all have the opportunity to be who they want to be and believe in the power they have to influence the people and the world around them. I want to see a world of socially aware individuals and thoughtful, responsible leaders. I have been so privileged in my education and in all the support I’ve had in my own personal development. I believe the children I met and lived with in Malawi deserve the same opportunities and support as children growing up in Canada. I believe in engaging students in global issues and fostering their personal and leadership development. This isn’t just my dream – It’s EWB’s dream too.


I joined EWB as MUN’s “School Outreach Director”. I went to schools and community groups and spoke with young students about global issues and their potential to do something about them. In Malawi, I worked with local leaders on developing their skills and increasing the effectiveness of the work they were doing. As Chapter President, I tried to build leaders by helping people realize their potential. Engineers Without Borders believes in building incredible, critical thinking, innovative, inspiring leaders – both in Canada and in Africa. They believe in questioning the status quo, in challenging our Canadian leaders about the effectiveness and transparency of our foreign aid, and in building strong African leaders, capable of striving day after day to improve the country in which they live.

EWB has had a profound impact on my life and the lens through which I view the world. They’ve inspired me to dream big and then to work hard to accomplish those dreams. They’ve invested in me as an individual and as a leader, supporting my personal development and enabling me to grow. As I soon put my undergrad behind me, I believe it’s now my turn to invest in EWB. This has been my passion for the last four years and inspires me as I move on to the next chapter of my life.

YOU have also inspired me. Thank you to my friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and all who have supported me throughout my degree. I greatly appreciate all that you’ve given me; the advice, prayers, words of support, and words that were sometimes harder to take. It has all helped me to grow as a person. I hope you’ll consider making a donation to EWB in support of both my dream and theirs. Funding is what enables our programs, so please donate, and donate generously. Then, after you’ve donated, please go out and realize your own dream; I believe we’re all capable of creating positive change and I would love to support your dream!

With love, Maria


Categories: Thoughts and Opinions, Volunteering in Malawi | Leave a comment

The Road to Development

I got a great question last week from Ian Froude; I’ve been thinking about it all week and I want to share my insights with you. The question was “What are the major barriers to the development of the community in which you are living? OR if it is already on the road to development, what is fueling that?” My thoughts on this question are based on my own personal experiences in Thyolo and on discussions I’ve had with my host family and co-workers. My family might be a bit biased since they live here, but I did try to be objective.

I think as Westerners a lot of people have this idea that the majority of people in Africa are living in extreme poverty. While it’s true that many Africans are living in poverty, there are also lots of Africans, and in this case villages, that work very hard and are privileged to have opportunities to lift themselves from poverty. While I still see poverty in my village, I think that it is currently on the road to development. I currently live in a village called Nchima. It is basically an extended part of the Boma and it also includes a large tea estate.

What makes me believe that Nchima is on the road to development? First of all, it has the benefit of being located very close to the Boma. This means that Nchima is located within walking distance of the huge MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital and government offices located in the Boma. Being located near a hospital has the obvious advantages of lower death rates due to diseases such as malaria and means that farmers spend less time away from their farms due to illness. The hospital has also done a pretty good job of promoting proper breastfeeding and handwashing in the vicinity (but a very poor job of promoting the use of toilet paper).

Since I have arrived in Thyolo the two main roads through the Boma have been flattened out and paved, the underground water system has been upgraded, and a new (and much better) marketplace is being constructed. Every time I walk up the road I have to be careful not to fall into holes that are being dug or get run over by tractors and trucks. There are also people everywhere selling their goods and produce, running small businesses, and preparing for the rainy season which means the beginning of the farming season.

The construction and upgrades in Thyolo are being funded by the Malawian government. I asked Mr. Nzengo why the government was giving Thyolo so much attention but I couldn’t really nail down a real reason. Personally I think it’s due to the fact that the president is from Thyolo (or as they call him in Malawi, “his Excellency the President Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika”). Another contributing factor could also be that Thyolo is one of the more densely populated districts in Malawi. It has more than 600 000 people and because it has so many expansive tea plantations there are a lot of people squished onto a small amount of land.

Another reason why I believe Thyolo is on the road to development is because there are lots of job opportunities here. First of all, there are always jobs available in tea plantations as tea pickers. While these jobs are grossly underpaid, if you have a bad season farming you can at least be guaranteed a job to tide you over until the next season (the average tea picker makes MK110 or $0.80CAD per day). Second of all, growing bananas can be pretty profitable in Thyolo. I’m not sure what conditions make Thyolo a great place to grow bananas, but many of the bananas you will find throughout Malawi came from Thyolo. Some farmers in villages will form co-operatives that work together to produce enough bananas so that they can hire a truck to take the bananas to Lilongwe (or other areas) where they can get more for their bananas.

Finally, one last piece of construction on the agenda for Thyolo is to upgrade the road that goes through southern Thyolo and on to Nsanje District, which is the most southern district in Malawi. Right now Thyolo has one main highway that goes from Blantyre to the Boma and then halfway through Thyolo and into the neighbouring District of Mulanje. In order to access Nsanje you must go back to Blantyre and come down through another district called Chikwawa. The main reason that upgrading the road to Nsanje will promote development is because Malawi has just opened an inland port in Nsanje that is located on the Shire River. The Shire River runs through Malawi and up to the Lake, the opening of this port will allow Malawi to connect to the Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean; this should supposedly lower the cost of imported goods such as fuel. I have my doubts that prices will actually go down in any way that will benefit the general public, but a new road should increase traffic through Thyolo.

While there’s lots of exciting things going on around Nchima right now, I do want to mention some of the things that may also be hindering development. First of all, as I mentioned before, Thyolo is a very densely populated District and most of the good farming land is taken over by huge tea estates. Thyolo is also very hilly which leaves countless farmers squished onto terrible plots of land such as along the hillside. My family currently owns about an acre of land but it is located about 5 kilometers away from where we live which makes it hard to visit. My family is currently paying someone else to maintain their land. I haven’t seen the land yet because we haven’t been doing any farming, but Mr. Nzengo has promised to take me there this month when he starts planting maize.

The climate in Thyolo has also been changing and many farmers in Southern Thyolo found themselves unable to harvest any maize (the staple crop) last year. Malawians depend on their farms to supply both food for their families and income during the dry season when no farming takes place. My co-workers have attributed some of the climate change to deforestation that has been happening on Thyolo Mountain.

Anyways, I realize my analysis has been a little more related to Thyolo in general as opposed to just Nchima, but I think it’s all relevant. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately with the farming season arriving is subsidies. The Malawian government has recently started giving farmers fertilizer subsidies to help improve their crop yield. In Canada we tend to look down on subsidies as a bad thing for developing countries (In EWB we do anyways), I’m curious what thoughts you guys have on developing countries jumping on the subsidy train. Do you think it’ll help even up the playing field a little bit, or are developing countries just following in our harmful policies? (My knowledge on how Canadian subsidies work is pretty limited as well, so I’d love for the chapter especially to do some research!)

Missing you all,

PS – Going on a Zambian safari this weekend!!! Very stoked about it! (After being in Malawi for 90 days on a visitor visa they make you leave the country and come back in)

Categories: Thoughts and Opinions, Volunteering in Malawi | 3 Comments

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