By Foster Benjamin
Along the dusty Thabwa Road, off Chikwawa-Ngabu stretch, dozens of school children march and sing. In chorus, they sing of the problem women and girls share— exposure to sexual violence.
As they chant, the learners carry placards, telling men off in bold words: ‘Don’t abuse us at school’; ‘don’t sexually abuse women at workplaces’. Such messages,in fact, transcend the walls of gender-based violence (GBV).
Boys are not left out either. Behind the echoes of girls, a row of boys clad in school uniform sing their ordeals away.
Of course, they feel sidelined in matters pertaining to bursaries which largely identify needy girls.
Now, they demand justice. Surely, in subtle ways, the boys cry out for equality.
“What Malawi are we building?” Wonders John Hassan, Form Four student and Head Boy at Mfera Community-day Secondary School (CDSS).
“It’s sad that even bursary organisers and managers favour girls when boys out there are also in dire need of the same. This is GBV, which we should fight to the last.”
Hassan,who speaks at an event marking 16 Days of Activism against GBV held at his school, observes that some girls deliberately fall into traps while seducing teachers. But why?
“They want to get favours from these teachers. They want to score good marks, but, inmost cases, it’s the teachers who coax girls, offering them good grades in exchange for sexual favours,” points out Hassan, adding “this negatively affect the girls in the end.”
Today,however, the girls are voicing out their concerns. Jane Sadulo (not her real name), a learner at Mfera CDSS, speaks out: “We suffer big time when we are sexually abused,” Jane laments, confessing that she nearly experienced abuse at the hands of her Standard 8 teacher some five years ago.
At the time, she recalls, she had rejected several advances from her teacher who promised her an easy ‘go’ at an exam.
“He kept telling me, ‘I’ll help you pass your primary school leaving certificate examinations with flying colours and you’ll be selected either to Chikwawa Secondary School or Stella Maris(Blantyre)’. But I always said, ‘no, no, no.’In fact, I wanted to report the teacher to the headmaster or my parents but I decided not to. I was very much afraid.”
Jane is one of a growing number of girls still confined to a culture of silence.Many victims of GBV choose to suffer in the cocoon of silence.
The government understands the extent of hardships facing these girls.
Chikwawa District Gender Officer, Ritah Sukasuka, says time has come to take GBV head-on.
“We’ll never let go all perpetrators, I tell you,” warns Sukasuka, stressing “Those who are victimised should report to any school official, call the toll free line 5600,or report to police….They should really break the silence.”
In the absence of breaking the silence, it is reported, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based injustices virtually breed and spread.
In Chikwawa,there has been an epidemic of defilement and rape cases in 2018. The district recorded 448 cases, slightly lower than in 2017, according to records at Chikwawa Police Station.
“Put in perspective, most of these cases are coming from [Paramount Chief] Lundu’s area due to urbanisation,” admits Mark Munama, Chikwawa Police Station Community Policing Coordinator, adding:
“Forced marriages are also on the rise in the district.”
Munama feels poverty and cultural beliefs could be fuelling such cases. Interestingly, he asserts, the law enforcers have upped their game.
“We’re very much keen on eradicating harmful cultural practices by intensifying public awareness campaigns. Also, we will not relent on bringing to justice those found perpetuating GBV,” intones the district’s police coordinator.
But there is more to ending GBV than arrests and convictions alone. Political will from across the spectrum is a key yardstick to fighting vices besetting women and girls.
A report which the United Nations Human Rights office released recently notes that“legislative, political and operational measures” are some of the good practices aimed at preventing cases of violence against women and girls.
“Preventing violence from happening in the first place must be central to any strategy to eliminate violence against women,” said Navy Pillay, UN Human Rights chief.
She has a point.
Women and girls must take a leading role in preventing cases of violence against themselves.
“Reporting perpetrators of GBV is the only solution,” says Sukasuka. “We really encourage victimised women and girls to air out their grievances in line with Ndiulula Programme under the Ministry of Gender, Women and Social Development.”
Are such initiatives a turning point for girls? Time will only tell.