It was supposed to be a thing of the past in Malawi. After all, examples, including Herbert Mankhwala’s hacking the arms of his wife Marietta Samuel in 2005, vividly show gender-based violence is evil.
“Gender equality has become a talking point across the country with reports of men chopping off women’s limbs, but communities must do more to make such violent acts history,” says survivor, Chrissie Paifa-Saizi.
For the wife of a reed-mat weaver in Mulunguzi Village, T/A Juma, Mulanje, it took a traditional leader and a circle of well-wishers to save her from a violent marriage that marred her self-esteem.
“My husband always required me to carry the mats to Nkando Trading Centre but never wanted to share the money. I couldn’t ask why he was doing this to me and my family. He was so ruthless that he could beat me, tear my clothes and force me to walk naked all the way from the market,” recalls the mother of one.
Saizi, who does not know her age because she did not attend school, says she grew up with the misconception that wife beating is a man’s way of restating his power as family head, a reminder for women never to question his dictates at all cost.
“Repeated abuse made me think less about myself, but walking out would not have endeared me to society. I clung to the abusive marriage to take care of my child and save myself from ridicule,” she says.
However, a society that nursed enslaving marriage-related myths has seen light. Saizi says her ray dawned last December, soon after her husband of eight years gave her what she calls her final beating.
According to her, group village head Mulunguzi and members of a village discussion group—code-named ‘star circle’—visited the couple to talk about their situation which had become a public concern.
Mulunguzi says the circles, which meet weekly to discuss issues of shared importance, show a society gunning for a nation without gender-based violence, harmful cultural practices, and discrimination of women from financial matters as well as exclusion of girls from education.
“Community members cannot remain silent when some of its members are suffering. If it does, abusers will not know they are doing wrong. But if people unite and stand up against abuse, you can stop change. Not even the things our fathers used to do,” says Mulunguzi.
Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom) has spearheaded the formation of 100 star circles in Mulanje with funding from Tilitonse—a basket facility bankrolled by DfID, Norad and European Union—through Oxfam.
According to members, circle discussions involve people sitting in circles to tackle their problems as equals, suggesting solutions, defining their role and demanding their rights from relevant authorities.
One of them, Roselyn Mangulenje, praises the phenomenon for popularising village savings and loan groups which are giving women economic empowerment, weaning them from overdependence on men.
“Sometimes, men ill-treat us because they think we cannot survive without them. The village banks are giving enterprising women access to loans for small-scale businesses so that we can effectively contribute to household income as well as decision-making,” says Mangulenje.
The woman has invested proceeds from sales of mandasi (flitters), fish and cooking oil, a business which started with a K10 000 loan, in rebuilding her house which was leaky and collapsing.
Like most women in the area, Mangulenje has never stepped in a bank. It costs Mulunguzi residents K150 to travel to Mkando and about K500 to Chitakale and Mulanje Boma.
The rural dwellers confess being too poor and illiterate to attempt brick-and-mortar banks. The illiteracy could be a result of massive number of girls quitting school due to early marriages and pregnancies.
To change the pattern, the circles and women support groups are playing a pivotal role in encouraging girls to remain and return to school.
Among their beneficiaries is Jazeera Banueti, who got pregnant while in Form Two at Namulenga Community Day Secondary School two years ago. Rewriting her history, the student has reverted to Form One.
“When I fell pregnant, I couldn’t go to school. Everybody was pushing me to marry and I thought my future was shattered. My return to school on January 7 has given me a second chance in life and the future looks brighter. Thanks to star circle members, I can be what I want—a medical doctor,” says the student, holding her baby Sakina, which translates as ‘a blessing’.
In an interview when she visited the community, Creccom programme manager Madalo Samati and Oxfam gender justice coordinator Billy Molosoni commended locals for taking a leading role to free themselves from trends that reinforce gender disparities.
“The star circles show that people are willing to change and to take part in building a better society, but there is need for deliberate interventions from government and its partners to popularise policies aimed at bridging the gaps,” says Samati.
Equally impressive were representatives of Oxfam Germany and UK.
They described the circles as a success story of how locals can take part in entrenching gender equality, for ending inequalities is the beginning of sustainable development.