By Chikondi Magalasi:
Elizabeth Kamoto has become an iconic figure in Mkhwayi Village, Traditional Authority Jenala’s area in Phalombe District. This is simply because the 22 year old girl has managed to finish her secondary education and establish herself in the community as an independent young woman.
“A lot of girls in my community look at me as an inspiration because I have grown up in this community where in the past, finishing school was not a thing for girls; let alone staying a year or two after school independently without rushing into marriage, so most of the girls that I lead, want to be like me,” she proudly explained.
While the community looks at her as an achiever, Elizabeth share an open secret that has accompanied her on the journey to success throughout the days of schooling.
She had been a committed member of Tionere Youth Club, through which she accessed Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) that include Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and Information, from Mkhwayi Health Centre.
“If it was not for family planning methods and the information I used to get from Youth Friendly Health Services, I doubt if I would have been able to get out of school clean of pregnancy,” she emphasized.
In years before 2017 when implementation of the Improving Access to Sexual Reproductive Health Services and Information (Igasi) project by the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (Cavwoc) and Girls’ Empowerment Network (Genet), girls from Traditional Authority Jenala led the race in dropping out of school due to pregnancies and early marriages in the district.
Statistics from Khongoloni Community Day Secondary School show that at least 10 girls used to drop out of school every academic year due to unwanted pregnancies that led most of them into complicated and unlawful marriages.
“So when Cavwoc came to implement the Igasi project in our area, some of us took it as an advantage to protect ourselves from pregnancy and marriage. They introduced Youth Friendly Health Services through which young people access important information as well as the actual SRHR services,” Kamoto said.
She added that by increasing access to SRHR and information, the project created a safe environment for young women and girls to continue with their education, even if they engaged in sexual relationships.
Currently, she owns a tailoring shop and does irrigation farming that have made her self-reliant as she continues to persuade more girls to follow her footprints on the way to independence.
Elizabeth may be the torch-bearer on issues of such nature in T/A Jenala, but she is not alone in this quest because her counterpart, Monica Kwerengwe, is doing the same in the area of Senior Chief Nazombe in the district.
Monica, who completed her secondary education at Michesi Day Secondary School and is a member of Chiringa Youth Club, said she has kept herself from getting pregnant through SRHR services hence her guts to lead her colleagues in her path.
Through the Igasi project, 30 girl champions were trained to be the frontliners among fellow girls in encouraging others to access Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights so that they can remain in school despite all the temptations that come with adolescence.
Additionally, a group of 20 male champions was also trained to complement efforts in reducing barriers that prevent girls and young women from accessing SRH information and services in Traditional Authorities Jenala and Nazombe of the district.
Cavwoc Project Officer in the district, Linda Alimoso, described the young girl champions as corner stone for sustainability of the project’s outputs.
She says the girls’ initiative, which is community led, encouraged her organisation in implementation of the three year project because it symbolised their willingness to save others from pre-set destination of teenage pregnancies and early marriages that were deeply rooted in the two communities.
“Girls like Elizabeth are the hub of our project in as far as disseminating messages of SRHR to their fellow youths is concerned, as you know as the organisation we may not be here forever but when community members such as these girls take up responsibility, we can rest assured that our efforts will continue bearing fruits,” she said.
Patrick Zomba, who is one of the male champions, hailed the project, arguing it has impacted postivively on school dropout rate in primary and secondary schools in the area.
Youth Friendly Health Services focal person for Mkhwayi Health Centre, Godfrey Chikopa, says before the project, youths were not coming to the facility to access contraceptives and advice on avoiding pregnancy and Sexually Transimitted Infections (STIs) but now things have changed.
He said now, the youth do meet at the facility every weekend, discussing matters affecting their lives and seeking contraceptives meant for safe sex such as condoms.
Chikopa, who is also a nurse at the facility, added that he would love to see the project continuing so that more youths in the area should not rush into unplanned marriages but to work hard in pursuing their education.
District Youth Development Officer for Phalombe, Ian Sukali said the project has benefitted both in and out of school youths in the district on SHR access as well as reducing Gender Based Violence (GBV).
“Over the past three years in which this project has been in force, the two areas of Jenala and Naombe have been forthcoming with GBV reportage, mainly due to the awareness raised in the communities,” Sukali said.
Although the Igasi project winds up early 2021, but with fruits like Elizabeth, Monica and other girls championing the cause, one can expect more developments in future. The mushrooming of self-reliant girls who can stand up to demand their rights and protect others is something that needs to be encouraged if vulnerable girls in our local communities are to feel proected