For three decades, 38-year-old Helison Banda, who comes from Galafukira Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalumo in Ntchisi District, treated his 36-year-old wife Veronica as less human and therefore not entitled to equal rights with men.
Banda would send his wife and children to the farm while he went to drink local brews with his peers.
But during the harvesting period, he ensured that no one, except him, went to the market to sell the produce from where he proceeded to squander the cash with other women in his locality.
“I had no sense of responsibility over my family. I could allow my wife and children to sleep without food while I spent all the money on alcohol,” Banda confesses.
The now-regretful abusive husband made the sentiments before a team of journalists who visited his area to appreciate interventions that community leaders have put in place to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe (CCJP Lilongwe) facilitated the media tour in partnership with Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre (Crapac) with financial support from United Nations Women through the Spotlight Initiative Project.
In Dowa and Ntchisi districts, CCJP Lilongwe and Crapac are jointly implementing a project titled aimed at raising the voice of women in fighting violence they experience together with girls.
CCJP Lilongwe Archdiocesan Coordinator, Enock Kamundi Phiri, said the ultimate goal of their intervention is to contribute towards significant empowerment of women and girls and the creation of a violence-free environment.
Phiri said the project seeks to economically empower women and girls in Dowa and Ntchisi to participate equally in existing markets and have access to and control over productive resources, among others.
They should also have decent work at their disposal and control over their own time, lives and bodies.
“The project is advancing effective approaches both to prevent GBV—including interventions to address the social norms and behaviours that underpin violence—and to scale up and improve response when violence occurs,” Phiri explained.
Senior Chief Nthondo and T/A Kalumo admitted that patriarchal and cultural practices have, for decades, blocked women and girls from enjoying equal rights and opportunities as their male counterparts.
The chiefs confessed that their ancestral cultural and traditional beliefs have pushed women and girls out of the window in the enjoyment of social and economic rights.
Nthondo said, for instance, women have had not rights to equal inheritance, equal shares of matrimonial property, recognition as legitimate and legal owners of land and property, who can buy, sell, lease and raise loans on the basis of that property, are denied all over the world, in a wide range of cultures and communities.
“And this benefited irresponsible and selfish husbands who would take advantage of the status quo to have all the proceeds from the sale of their farm produce to themselves. And this has been a practice since time immemorial,” he said.
On his part, Kalumo said the practice has negatively affected children who usually drop out of school due to lack of fees and other basic amenities because their fathers spend all money on alcohol and their extra-marital partners.
But there is a ray of hope for the women in the district now.
Nthondo and Kalumo said following the introduction of the Spotlight Initiative Project, community leaders have started deconstructing cultural norms and practices that disadvantage women and girls in the society.
Nthondo said they have formulated by-laws which spell out tough penalties for men who violate their wives’ right to economic activities.
He said men who have spent all the money realised from sale of agricultural produce are punished severely, including being fined to pay a live goat.
“Wives are then awarded all the remaining produce so they can sell it and use the proceeds to support their children with school and other essential needs.
“Polygamy is allowed only when it is certified that a particular man really requires more women and that he is capable of taking care of them. Otherwise, we do not allow polygamy here for it is another root cause of violence, poverty and child marriages,” said Nthondo.
Banda was recently sanctioned by the chief over his abusive behaviour towards his wife and children.
This was after he had spent K40,000 he realised from the sale of 100 kilogrammes of the family’s soya beans on alcohol.
“I was fined. And from that day, I resolved to stop taking alcohol,” he said.
His wife, Veronica, confirmed that Banda is now a changed man.
“My husband now spends his time at the garden growing vegetables. He is honest with the proceeds from the sale of vegetables such that we use the money to buy basic needs of the family,” she said.
During the two-day media tour, community members said the project has raised awareness about anti-violence laws and helped build and develop local structures such as traditional leaders, community based educators, community police forums, male champions, mother groups and community victim support units to improve coordination and effectiveness in addressing GBV.
Through the project, traditional and community leaders in two districts have dissolved 85 marriages in less than two months.
However, the chiefs decried the project’s lifespan, arguing four months is ‘too short’ for a project to register a remarkable impact on its beneficiaries.
CCJP Lilongwe Head of Programmes, Patrick Chima, pledged the commission would discuss with its donor on the possibility of extending the project.
Chima was hopeful that the partners would understand the importance of the project and the impact it has on the lives of women and girls at the time the two districts continue posting a rise in GBV cases.
“We acknowledge that we have to sustain the good work that we have started. We also know that most of the victims and their families cannot support themselves.
“We are also discussing with district social welfare offices and other stakeholders to consider including victims and families in social protection measures being implemented at district level so that they have something with which to support with,” Chima said.
The CCJP Lilongwe and Crapac project was designed to empower women and girls so that they can challenge drivers of violence against women and girls both in private and public spheres.
The two institutions say they developed effective initiatives to address underlying risk factors for violence, including social norms regarding gender roles and the acceptability of violence.
Kamundi Phiri says they realised that decreasing cases of violence against women and girls requires a community-based, multi-pronged approach and sustained engagement with stakeholders.