By Alick Ponje:
The persistent rain on that Saturday afternoon, some two weeks ago, could not stop girls from various schools in Mulanje from delivering their message that they should be protected and respected.
They had come together, clad in their school uniforms, to drive home a message that was becoming more and more popular among communities in the border district which still has one of the highest rates of cases of gender-based violence (GBV).
The five stops that they had between Nkando Trading Centre in Mulanje West and Muloza Border fortified their resolve to voice out their worry over the threat they continued to face every day from people they were supposed to trust.
“There are girls who are abused by their own parents and close relatives. This is very sad. We need protection,” one of the schoolgirls who took part in the road show, Sharon Bonongwe, said.
While she had not experienced any significant abuse, she said, she lived in constant fear of what men, who continuously stalked her, were capable of doing.
The 13-year-old had grown to assume that at her age, it was only proper to have many men approaching her for love affairs.
She says that is what her aunt had told her when she had visited her two years ago.
But messages from institutions like Malawi Girl Guides Association (Magga) were changing her view and she was constantly training herself to ‘fear’ men.
“Even in school, we are being told to protect ourselves and avoid engaging in love affairs before we turn 18. Magga has been presenting to us role models like nurses from whom we appreciate the value of education,” Sharon says.
On the day of the roadshow, she carried for over four hours a banner bearing the message #Ndiulura, which is fashioned to help girls and young women who have been abused to reveal their misfortunes to older people and relevant institutions.
“Should I get abused in any way, I will definitely not remain silent. I know of other girls who have been raped or were forced into early marriages but remained quiet. I cannot. It is my future which I have to protect,” Sharon says.
Dozens other girls who took part in the roadshow had sufficiently grasped the message that they have rights which need to be protected and that they have futures to preserve.
In the songs that they sang were clear messages that they would not watch anyone abuse them or their sisters.
Throughout the trip, they also chanted slogans about the rights and freedoms that they are supposed to enjoy as girls and why no one should be allowed to take that away from them.
“Being reminded now and again about our rights as girls is very important. It allows us to reflect on such rights now and then and understand when they are being abused,” 16-year-old Jane Kholowa, said in an interview after the tour.
As the Axa shuttle trundled forth, followed by other vehicles, it was clear that the core message of the campaign was sinking in the hearts of men and women who waved at the girls and nodded emphatically.
At trading centres, where the vehicles stopped briefly, men could be heard saying no one would have an excuse for marrying an underage as messages discouraging that had become so common.
A 15-year-old student at Thuchila Community Day Secondary School in the border district, Bridget Namowa, says girls who are not equipped with sufficient information about how to take care of and defend themselves are most vulnerable.
“When teachers and parents do not tell girls more about their rights, they sometimes feel it is normal when they are being abused. Those of us who have been enlightened on our rights know what to do when we are being abused,” Bridget says.
She hopes that more stakeholders will continue fighting for the rights of girls and young women whose futures continue to be destroyed by irresponsible men.
“We want these abuses to end. We deserve better. We have our futures which should be guarded and we hope that relevant institutions will not rest until we are protected both in homes and schools,” she says.
On the tour to Muloza Border, Bridget and other girls were confident that their message had been delivered. They still want the message to go to every corner of the country.
This is also the wish of Magga Southern Region Commissioner, Gertrude Binali-Ndhlovu, who is worried that most girls do not report to relevant authorities when their rights are violated in one way or another.
“Abusers of girls and young women should be punished. This can only be possible if the victims open up and report the abuses. We are teaching them that,” she says.
As her organisation intensifies awareness campaigns on girls and young women’s rights, Binali-Ndhlovu is optimistic that Mulanje District will shed off the infamous tag that it has one of the highest cases of child marriages and teen pregnancies.