Why the Gender of Traditional Authorities Matters: Intersectionality and Women's Rights Advocacy in Malawi

In Malawi, female traditional leaders are more effective in bolstering support for child marriage reforms than their state or male counterparts.

Introduction

Note: This study was previously published as a working paper under the title "It Takes a Female Chief: Gender and Effective Policy Advocacy in Malawi" in 2017.

In many African contexts, European colonization has left a legacy of dual governance by state and traditional authorities. Traditional authorities, who may have the capacity to collect informal taxes, solicit funds for local development, and control the judicial system at the local level, have often been perceived as resisting rather than promoting gender equality reform. In recent years, however, traditional leaders have joined in state efforts to curb discriminatory practices detrimental to women and children. Such partnerships are formed on the basis that traditional leadership benefits from a high degree of trust compared to elected officials who are further removed from local communities.

While previous research has examined how women in elected offices shape feminist agendas, fewer studies have focused on the gendered aspects of traditional leadership. This neglect allows assumptions about traditional authorities' gender and attachment to patriarchal practices to inform scholars' and practitioners' approach to research and development projects. A greater understanding of the impact of state and traditional leaders' advocacy is necessary to provide a better idea of who an effective coalition for advancing women's rights should include.

In this study, the authors examined the impact of authority type (traditional or state) and gender (male or female) on citizens' attitude toward reforms advancing women's rights. To do so, they randomly assigned survey respondents in Malawi to a control group or to receive a message about contemporary child marriage reform from a female or male traditional authority or state elected official, and then compared effects of each treatment on support for the reform.

Findings

Traditional authorities (TAs) may be more effective messengers of women's rights reforms among some population subgroups, but the effectiveness of their advocacy depends on their gender, as female TAs are often more effective than their male counterparts.

Messenger Traits

None of the four messenger types — female TA, female elected official, male TA, and male elected official — produced impacts on support for child marriage reform that were statistically different from one another. The female TA's endorsement, however, was the the only type not significantly less effective than the control, suggesting this was the only messenger not to produce overall backlash effects (a decline in support for the reform compared to the control).

  • 80% of respondents in the control treatment strongly supported the reform, 78% in the female TA treatment, 75% in the female elected official treatment, 72% in the male TA treatment, and 74% in the male elected official treatment.

Respondent Traits

Respondents' gender and lineage customs affected their response to messages from different authority types and genders.

  • Among female respondents, 82% in the control treatment said they strongly supported the reform, 85% in the female TA treatment, 76% in the female elected official treatment, 68% in the male TA treatment, and 75% in the male elected official treatment.
  • Among respondents practicing patrilineal customs, 73% in the control treatment said they strongly supported the reform, 72% in the female TA treatment, 67% in the female elected official treatment, 63% in the male TA treatment, and 76% in the male elected official treatment.
  • Among those practicing matrilineal customs, 86% in the control treatment said they strongly supported the reform, 83% in the female TA treatment, 82% in the female elected official treatment, 80% in the male TA treatment, and 73% in the male elected official treatment.

Drawing on these findings the authors attributed female traditional authorities' effectiveness to traditional authorities’ high public trust, as well as female leaders' stereotyped competence in women’s rights. These results suggest that the effectiveness of leaders' advocacy varies based on citizens' or authorities' background, and differs across policy issues given the role of stereotypes regarding male or female competencies. Ultimately, these findings underscore the importance of an intersectional approach to policy advocacy that accounts for authorities' institution type and gender.

Methodology

This study assessed both traits that shaped citizens' support for a Malawi law setting the marriage age at 18 years and the impact of different leaders' endorsement of the law on citizen support for it. The authors selected Malawi as a site for studying the broader impact of authority type (traditional or state) and gender (male or female) on citizens' attitude toward reforms advancing women's rights due the presence of traditional authorities, including female traditional authorities, in the country and Malawi's gender equality reforms, for which the national government was partnering with traditional leaders.

A survey was embedded in the 2016 Local Government Performance Index (LGPI) and drew responses from 17 rural traditional authority areas and 5 urban government wards. From the 7,500 total survey participants, 1,381 were randomly selected to receive one of five experimental prompts, in which they were asked to rate on a four-point scale the extent to which they agreed that the minimum marriage age should be raised to 18 years. A control group received no framing for this question, while four treatment groups received an endorsement of the law from a female traditional authority, a female elected official, a male traditional authority, or a male elected official.
Select independent variables were also measured prior to the treatment, enabling deeper analysis of each endorsement's effects. The presence of gender role congruity theory, which suggests that prejudice against female leaders results from a perceived mismatch between traits associated with female gender roles and those associated with leadership roles, was measured by respondent gender and respondent lineage system (patrilineal or matrilineal).

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