The experience of dropping out of school in Standard Two, and getting married off by her grandmother at the age of 14, gave one Chalendo MacDonald, the reigning Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwanza of Salima, the impetus to turn against the practice.
Today, Mwanza, born in 1952 and married with four children, does not want to see the girl child go through the problems she faced during her upbringing, which include becoming a teen mother and being subjected to Gender Based Violence (GBV) in a forced marriage setup.
For this reason, Mwanza has risen up to the occasion and is championing girl education and women empowerment initiatives in her area to ensure that women and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV), which increases their exposure to HIV infection, is reduced.
While the illiterate GBV survivor, who became T/A in 2004, had a vision of championing girls and women empowerment in her area, she did not know how to accomplish her dream until the Malawi Interfaith Aids Association (MIAA), with funding from European Union (EU) through United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), came to her area to implement Girls Education and Women Empowerment (Gewe) project two years ago.
The aim of Gewe is to reduce gender inequalities between women, men, girls and boys in accessing resources and development opportunities as well as promoting decision making in order to contribute positively to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and accelerate attainment of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
MIAA Executive Director, Robert Ngaiyaye, says traditional leaders have been instrumental in addressing issues related to child marriage, promoting behaviour change for HIV prevention, harmful cultural practices, prevention, response to and management of violence , girls’ education, promotion of Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights with a focus on ending adolescent pregnancies .
“The coming in of Gewe programme has greatly assisted me in realising my dream of empowering women and girls and reducing their vulnerability to gender-based violence which increases their risk to HIV infection,” said Mwanza after she was visited by a high-level delegation of chiefs and government officials led by Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati and Her Royal Highness Queen Best Olimi, the Queen of Toro Kingdom, in Uganda.
Kaliati and Queen Best visited her as a way of motivating her to continue her work of transforming the lives of vulnerable groups.
One of the hallmarks of Gewe programme has been the establishment of Community Parliament to develop bylaws. Through the Community Parliament, she successfully lobbied local chiefs and other traditional leaders, religious leaders, teachers, youth representatives and women groups to develop and pass bylaws.
Such laws include the banning of child marriages, promoting girls education, encouraging pregnant mothers to deliver at the hospital and addressing issues of some harmful cultural practices.
“To begin with, I started working with chiefs in my area to find ways of reducing maternal deaths and this has culminated into the construction of a guardian waiting shelter at Makiyoni Health Centre. Community members did the work,” she said.
Apart from that, because of her commitment and dedication to reduce vulnerability of women and girls to all sorts of violence and HIV infection, some harmful cultural practices have been eliminated.
For instance, two types of gulewamkulu (Namkwanya and Kamano) have been eliminated because by their very same nature, they were sexually harassing women and girls. Namkwanya was used to physically and sexually assault female initiates during initiation ceremonies.
Namkwanya, according to Mwanza, was used to punish girls who were perceived to be rude in the communities.
“So one by one Namkwanya could come to pick a girl to have sexual intercourse with and he could do that with all the initiates whilst wearing his masks to hide his identity,” she said.
Realising that this was infringing on the rights of the initiates and putting the initiates and the gulewamkulu himself at risk of HIV infection, elders, led by Mwanza, decided to eliminate this type of gulewamkulu.
The area has also registered increased cases of GBV cases reported to authorities, culminating in an increased number of girls getting motivated to go back to school.
“In 2010, I was impregnated while in Form One at Kambiya Community Day Secondary School and was forced into marriage with a man who impregnated me. But just after a year into this marriage, after the birth of my child, we broke up. Some women then, under Mother Groups within Gewe project, approached my parents to encourage me to go back to school. Now I am in Form Three and will be sitting for Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations shortly,” testifies Cathrene Phiri, 20.
Among others, religious leaders in Mwanza’s area have stopped officiating marriages involving young girls and boys. There has also been a mushrooming of adult literacy classes to assist different groups of women and out-of-school girls to read and write.
Ultimately, Mwanza notes that, while cultural and religious traditions play an important role in any community, they can also pose threats to community well-being when rigidly adhered to.
“That is why I have always emphasised that a multi-faith response involving religious and traditional leaders is needed to promote positive actions and overcome threats to community development,” she said.
The delegation which Kaliati led also included notable figures such as Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Principal Secretary Mary Shaba, UNFPA Representative Violet Kakyomya, National AIDS Commission (NAC) Board Chair Paramount Chief Kyungu, Inkosi Gomani V of Ntcheu, Senior Chief Kwataine of Ntcheu, Chikumbu of Mulanje, Kachindamoto of Dedza, Lukwa of Kasungu, Chitera of Chiradzulu, Chief Kampingo Sibande of Mzimba and T/A Kalembo of Balaka among others.
The traditional leaders hailed Mwanza and borrowed a leaf from her on how they can champion a similar cause in their areas to ensure that common forms of GBV being addressed in Mwanza’s area are eliminated.
The delegation also saluted Mwanza for championing elimination of common forms of GBV that include vulnerability to HIV infection that emanates from religious and traditional cultural practices; linkages of religious and traditional cultural practices and sexual reproductive health (SRH), HIV and Aids and vulnerability to HIV infection emanating from Economic related issues.
“It is my pleasure to visit this place. It has allowed me to see what the cultural leaders are doing to advance positive social change in Malawi. I believe that all girls should be in school,” said Queen Best.
“Girls cannot grow up healthy and fulfill their dreams if we do not protect them from Aids. It is my belief that societies in Uganda and Malawi can play a big role in protecting girls from the risks they face while growing up,” she added.
Queen Best also applauded Malawi for increasing marriage age from 16 to 18.
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