It’s not yet Thursday, the day young people of Traditional Authority Malemia in Nsanje usually meet to discuss various issues concerning their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) but they have converged in order to voice out their concerns.
On this extremely hot day, the hopeful and curious youths have converged under a huge Kachere tree, situated at the corner of four dirt cross roads.
They look at the officials from Tiphedzane Community Support Organisation (Ticoso) and journalists eagerly.
One of the Malemia Youth Organisation members, Mphatso Chitoleni quickly indicates that the members present (here) are just a quarter of the total number of the groupings’ youths.
Despite Nsanje’s harsh hot weather, on this day, people are notably performing their daily errands, fetching water, selling food stuffs along the key streets, vending and others idling.
But one question is enough for the youths to say it all; their SRH is under threat and needs urgent attention from appropriate duty bearers.
Chitoleni tells that the youths feel like health workers do not care for the youths of this area.
“There are usually no condoms at Nsanje district hospital and we rely on a local Non-Governmental Organisation (Tiphedzane) to supply us with condoms without which, we end up having sex without the use of condoms,” laments the 18 year old.
Chitoleni tells that the nearest health facility is Nsanje district hospital and it also provides Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) but the major challenge is that the youths are still not satisfied with the way they are handled.
He claims that youths walk very long distances to access SRH services; citing an example of those living in Chididi area as being disadvantaged, “The Health Surveillance Assistants may also provide contraceptives including condoms but they usually do not have stock.”
“We would have loved to be free to discuss our SRH issues with health workers but things are different.”
Chitoleni reveals that the room that is used for YFHS at Nsanje district hospital is not conducive, describing it as scaring.
“It’s directly opposite a room where Antiretroviral drugs are administered. Generally there is still lots of discrimination attached to HIV issues and it may happen that someone sees a youth going towards that direction, it is concluded that they are on life prolonging ARV drugs…we feel shy just by having this at the back of our minds,” he says.
The youths seem to be facing a triple distress; they are also forced to perform sexual rituals, exposing them to acquire Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and having unintended pregnancies.
“Young women who are believed to have had an abortion are forced to sleep with strangers to cleanse them. These rituals are done to cleanse so many things in our society,” says Janet Chilangwe of the same area, who claims to know a girl who was impregnated and infected with HIV after being forced to sleep with a stranger.
Projects Officer for Tiphedzane, Moses Jakison says all TAs were told to have by-laws that will protect young women from harmful cultural practices and their exposure to STIs.
“But none has enforced these by laws, they claim they are waiting for the judiciary to validate the by-laws and this is taking forever,” he says.
Jakisoni claims the chiefs are somehow benefiting from the harmful cultural practices because they receive chickens, maize meal and money when families perform such rituals.
“The youths have no say in these matters…. Traditional leaders want to prove their authority,” he notes.
TAs Malemia and Chimombo dismiss the issues, saying the chiefs are trying everything possible to deal with harmful cultural practices, especially those to do with sexual cleansing. They both however say there is a possibility that this could be happening under the wraps.
“…the youths are not being fair (to us and themselves) by not reporting the issue to relevant authorities to act… This is against the law. As a traditional leader, I ensure that I deal with the culprits should anything be brought to my attention. We are very serious about ending these harmful cultural practices,” TA Malemia says.
TA Chimombo admits that the sexual cleansing traditions used to happen but they are no longer happening due to the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
“We have become flexible. Instead of using strangers to do the cleansing, we are now using couples within the clan to perform the sexual ritual…. May be the youths making these claims do not know about this new trend that much that’s why they are saying this,” he said.
TA Chimombo asserts that all TAs have by-laws but their enforcement varies from one area to the other, saying he currently enforces them, “If one is found practicing harmful cultural practices, they are supposed to give me a goat.”
But he says this year, he is conducting civic education through meetings because he was suspended for five years and has just been reinstated.
YFHS Coordinator for Nsanje district hospital, Alinafe Zaina says the hospital registers more than 150 STI cases (young people aged 10-24) quarterly, which is translating to 37 cases in a month.
“We are concerned that many youths are presenting STIs and unintended pregnancies. This is happening because they are being forced to have sex. When they reach certain ages they are believed to have become of age and old enough to have sex,” he reveals.
Nsanje district hospital records indicate that in August alone, the facility attended to 12 post abortion care cases.
Zaina confirms that the YFHS is indeed near the ART clinic, “We have a problem because we have no designated building for YFHS. We usually meet on some space to discuss SRHR issue…but it doesn’t mean that when they come here then they have come for ART.”
The Malawi National Youth Policy of August 2013 recognizes the fact that youths remain vulnerable to many health risks such as STIs including HIV and AIDS.
The policy pledges to promote general health and non-discriminatory sexual reproductive health and rights of young people.
It further promises to ensure that sexual and cultural practices that promote the spread of STIs including HIV and AIDS, early pregnancies and teenage pregnancies are discouraged.
District Commissioner for Nsanje, Reinghard Chavula says she could not rule out the claims the youths are making and that her office will follow up on the issues.
“We follow up on these issues regularly but we are aware of the fact that other cultures might have gone underground….This has been a tradition here so there is a possibility that it may not vanish overnight,” she says.
On the by-laws, Chavula says the council is working on having uniform by-laws for all areas in the district.
Executive Director for Ticoso, Mike Dansa says his organisation is implementing programs that promote the rights of adolescent girls and boys on SRHR.
“Culture is hindering progress of SRHR activities and their exposure to STIs is putting a strain on health resources,” he says.
Dansa however says his organisation is has built the capacity of youths to demand their rights on SRHR and services from duty bearers.
“It has also strengthened the capacity of duty bearers to take action to support and respond to issues raised by youths,” he says.
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