She does not have the face of a brave woman, but Everesi Mithi, 56, a widow from Falaminga Village in Senior Chief Chimombo’s area in Nsanje, is no coward.
Mithi stood her ground and refused to marry her brother-in-law, as tradition in her village demands, when her husband passed away.
She recalls vividly as if the incident happened just last month.
“My husband died in April 2013 and together we had two children who are both married now. When my husband died, my in-laws came to tell me that my brother in-law will take over the role of a husband for me from his brother.
“I could not take it. My brother-in-law was getting sick all the time and here I was, about to be married off to this person. I knew marrying him would not only put my life at a risk, but also put him in control of my property, as our culture demands,” explains Mithi.
When she told her husband’s relations that she was not marrying her brother-in-law, they told her she will have to surrender to them all her household property because they did not belong to her.
She admits that she was scared by what her late husband’s relations said, but she maintained her stance.
Mithi says because she is a member of Tadala Club which receives training from Women’s Legal Resources Centre (Wolrec) in its implementation of Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (Gewe) programme in Nsanje, she knew she had to do something to stop her mother-in-law from grabbing her property..
“Ever since Gewe started in 2012, it made me understand that I have rights and property grabbing is a violation of some of my rights. I reported my mother-in-law’s threats to my village head and to Wolrec,” she says.
Later, Gewe programme officer for the district, Evance Mathewe, invited Mithi and her mother-in-law to Wolrec offices and explained to them the evils of the cultural practice and how it is fuelling the spread of HIV and Aids.
“But my mother-in-law was not moved. She still wanted me to marry her other son. There was no way I could do that but also, I could not allow my property to be taken away,” Mithi says.
Knowing that her mother-in-law was focused on her property, she decided to give her a part of it, which included a motorcycle and some household items.
She also moved away from her husband’s home village where she was staying in an iron-sheet roofed house and built a grass thatched house at her home village.
Today, Mithi is thankful to Wolrec through the Gewe programme for empowering her to stand up for her rights. The brother in-law she was supposed to marry died in June this year while his wife died in December last year.
“If I had married him, I would probably be marrying a third husband by now because after his death, I could have been married to another member of the family,” she says.
Mithi is just one of the many people in Nsanje who have realised that there is need to deal with harmful traditional practices that put people’s lives at risk and together with members of her group, they conduct sensitisation meetings in various communities on the dangers of practising such harmful traditions.
Felix Tayubu, a member of Tadala Club which reaches out to over 11 villages in Senior Chief Chimombo’s area with Gewe programme messages, said most of the harmful cultural practices are gender-based violations and they harm women more.
“It is our tradition that when a man dies, his wife is supposed to be given another husband from the same family to marry her,” says Tayubu.
Although this is the case, Tayubu says people have now begun to realise that they need to move on from those traditions because they are doing more harm than good.
Mathewe says the programme is going on well and the district has registered many positive strides ever since it started in 2012.
Other success stories that the Gewe programme has registered in Nsanje include the establishment of early childhood centres, scaling down school dropout rates among girls, ensuring girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancies return to school, and empowering both men and women to stand up against gender-based violence.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the European Union (EU) are supporting the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare (MoGCSW) in implementing the Gewe programme in 13 districts.
MoGCSW, as the lead implementing agency of the programme on behalf of government, implements Gewe programme activities at district level jointly with other non-profit making organisations that are already working with the grass roots.
In Nsanje, the ministry partnered with Wolrec.
The overall programme objective is to contribute towards acceleration of efforts to advance gender equality and equity as a human right for the reduction of HIV and Aids and poverty in line with Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and the National Gender Policy (NGP).