She is an experienced public speaker, a mentor and an advocate of human rights, particularly on women and girls issues. She works as the national coordinator of the Humanist institution for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), an NGO that aims to end child marriages in the developing world. Rachel Kachali found out more from her.
May I know you?
My name is Cynthia Ngwalo Lungu. I was born in 1983. I am a wife to Suzgo Lungu and a mother to two girls—Sahara and Savanna. I come from Mdeka, Kabano Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chigaru in Blantyre. I am passionate about development issues, especially health, HIV and Aids; gender and human rights. I am a firm believer that human rights should be enjoyed by all, irrespective of gender ethnicity, religion or sexuality.
How has been your education and career progression?
I went through my primary education between 1988 and 1996. I started Standard One at Chilomoni Primary School before moving to St. Pius Girls Primary School. Finally, I sat for Standard Eight examinations at Ntonya Private School from where I was selected to Providence Secondary School to do form one and two. I then transferred to Blantyre and was selected to Chancellor College where I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts Humanities. Finally, I got an MBA from the University of Wales, Newport.
Whilst pursuing my degree, I worked on a part time basis with Creccom as a theatre for development troupe member focusing on various education, gender and HIV projects. The experience with Creccom is what I often refer to as a defining moment in my career. The job exposed me to the beautiful women and girls of Malawi (especially women in rural areas) and the many hardships they through including poverty, lack access to basic needs and social services. It evoked in me an admiration for fellow women and a passion to work on their rights.
My first full time employment was with Medicines San Frontiers (MSF-Greece) in Dowa. It was hard, but I was energetic and eager to equip fellow women and girls with information about HIV and Aids and rights. After that, I went to the UK to study for my Masters Degree. I returned and worked for various organisations such as VSO, Christian Aid and Oxfam on themes around HIV, health and gender. My current role is very challenging, but I am happy to work for a cause I am passionate about.
Why the interest in women and girls?
I resent the fact that a huge part of our culture is around defining women as second class citizens. I find it appalling that some families invest more in their boys, ensuring they attend school and get basic necessities whilst discouraging girls from attending school and giving them house hold chores instead. I find it infuriating that in this day and age, 460 out of 100 000 women in Malawi die during child birth. It is even absurd that HIV prevalence should be high among women than men in our country. I also find it worrying that women in Malawi are approximately 51 percent of the population, but very few are in decision making positions. I will not even go into issues of land rights, economic opportunities and violence against women. To answer your question, I am interested in women and girls firstly because I am a woman and secondly, I am appalled by the injustice that young women and girls are subjected to on a daily basis in our country. I believe women have the stamina to soar to great heights and be at par with the men folk given similar opportunities and support. I think parents and communities need to invest in the girls just as much they invest in the other sex and develop a culture of celebrating the girl.
Growing up my parents instilled in me a spirit of hard work, I was expected to work and achieve exceptional results like my brother. When I lost my father a week before sitting for my MSCE, I was devastated, but determined to make it to university. After his passing, we went through a rough financial patch, but once again, I was inspired as I experienced outcomes that a strong and determined woman can achieve through my mother, who single-handedly brought us back on course. For me, my late mom remains a motivation and an emblem of the saying that what a man can do, a woman can do twice as good! I think I have gone off track here, but yes, I relate to the struggles of women in the country. So besides work, I often find time to mentor girls and women in the rural areas for them to understand there are plenty opportunities, that hard work with a good education and some determination are the way to go.
What is the situation of child marriages in Malawi?
It is pathetic as 52 percent of our girls get married before the age of 18. So you can imagine the repercussions. There are high maternal mortality incidences linked to child marriages such as fistula and other complications. We have school dropouts with child brides rarely continuing with their education. In most communities, marriage is often considered as a way out of poverty, but it’s high time we realised that child marriages are actually fuelling the poverty circle.
Tell me about your work at Hivos?
We aim to end child marriages by creating a conducive environment that prevents abuse and protects the rights of children. We advocate the development and effective implementation of laws such as The Marriage Divorce and Family relations Act. Recognising that a lot of the child marriages are a result of harmful social cultural practices and attitudes, Hivos also works on changing attitudes, beliefs and mind sets to ensure communities realise that marriage is not the ultimate for girls. Finally, we work to ensure women have access to economic empowerment opportunities and engage in small businesses to support themselves. There is also a component of alternative skills development for young women who were married early and find it hard to return to mainstream education.
How do you balance your life?
It is not easy, especially as I have two small children both under five years. But nothing in life is easy so I juggle and strive to create some sort of balance. I also have the support of my husband who is really a hands on father. The extended family from both my side and my husband’s have all been a great help and I can never thank them enough!
How have friends and shaped your life?
They have done a lot. I have few good friends, but they are all intelligent women and men who motivate me as I waddle through life. I am blessed to have such great friends. My family has been extremely supportive especially my two sisters, through the years we have mothered each other, especially since we lost our parents early. At some point my older sister practically gave up her life just so she could make sure my younger sister and I had a home to return to on our school holidays—I shall forever be indebted to her support. I did all sorts of odd jobs such as cleaning , care work and housekeeping to pay for my Masters in Wales.
What do you do when you are not working?
I like to spend time with my girls, Sahara and Savannah. I always say that in my house, the grasslands (Savannah and Sahara) thrive in the desert. I also like reading, especially issues on gender, religion and human rights. I read novels especially John Grisham plus I am addicted to movies and series though I never really have time.
What’s your advice to women and girls?
Irrespective of your circumstances, there is always an alternative. If there isn’t, find it; that light at the end of the tunnel might not be within your reach, but it’s there and if you are determined and work hard, you will definitely reach it. Young girls should set ambitious goals for themselves. Work hard to advance their education. Always remember that as women, we are powerful, strong and can excel in life.
Any favourite quotes?
These are more than quotes. I love The Desiderata, I love The Serenity Prayer, I value Psalm 121. Lastly let’s say the two actual quotes are: “If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger” and “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Don’t even ask who said that. n