Fyness Gwirima, 27 (not her real name), describes her life before 2017 as a series of sorrowful episodes due to what she went through at the hands of a man she describes as abusive.
Her home was characterised by all forms of gender-based violence (GBV).
“My husband would beat me, harass me verbally and not provide food for the family. In short, I was a victim of various forms of abuse that exist in the world,” says Gwirima.
Her troubled marriage emanated from a teenage pregnancy which pushed her to drop out of school while she was in Standard Eight.
However, Gwirima did not immediately go into marriage because her parents were hopeful that she would go back to school after delivering the baby, something which never happened.
She says: “I gave up on the idea of going back to school after being out for two years. I started my married life with the man who impregnated me. Everything was fine during the first years until we started encountering challenges.”
Gwirima says failure by the husband to fend for the family resulted in physical abuse.
“He could not support the household financially. I was left with the responsibility of taking care of the family.
“Life was difficult just relying on subsistence farming. We still needed to find a way to survive,” she narrates.
As a result, Gwirima was compelled to stop her first-born child from going to school to assist her in piecework at Nkando Market in Mulanje, located about five kilometres from her village.
She says that she and her son would peel Irish potatoes in restaurants, fetch water for the businesses as well as wash dishes to buy food.
Says Gwirima: “My husband provided support when he wanted and always challenged me that I couldn’t do anything or become independent.”
She recalls that one day, group village head Namulenga convened a community meeting which she attended and helped her gain her freedom in the process.
“The meeting was about an initiative that Youth Net and Counselling [Yoneco] came to establish in our village. The objective was to empower young women economically through village savings and loans [VSL].
“The initiative was about establishing VSL groups. I liked the idea and without hesitation, I expressed interest to join,” says Gwirima.
Two years later, she started reaping fruits from the VSL group as she saved enough money to open a small grocery shop by the veranda of her house.
“From the shop’s proceeds, I bought six pigs which I later sold and bought a cow. Now, I have two dairy cattle and five goats,” says Gwirima.
Today, she supplies milk to a dairy collection plant in her area and uses the profits to increase her savings at the VSL group besides paying school fees for her children.
“It is quite surprising to see how the man who used to abuse me respects me now. He has become very supportive in everything and we now do things together because he knows I worked hard for whatever we have,” says Gwirima.
In Nthuluwe Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda, Mwaiwathu VSL chairperson Zione Saikonde was left with the responsibility of raising three children aged between seven and 15.
“When my husband died in 2016, I was still young and some men were proposing to marry me. At first, I thought it was a good idea to marry again so that the man could take responsibility for my children.
“However, I remained sceptical for fear of ending up in the jaws of GBV. I decided to abandon the whole idea of marriage and concentrate on raising my children,” she says.
Saikonde says she was one of the first few women to join when Yoneco introduced VSL groups in her village in 2017. Over the years, she has enjoyed the benefits of the initiative.
“Through the small savings and loans, I started a baking business. I bake buns, locally known as Obama, and white buns. I used to sell them on retail, but as my business grew, some shop owners started buying in bulk and I now make a lot of money,” she says.
Saikonde estimates that on a good day, she makes up to K15 000 while on a not-so-good day, she carts home K10 000 which translates to an average of K260 000 per month.
The mother of three plans to invest in the education of her children, starting with the eldest who is in Form Two at HHI Secondary School in Blantyre.
Her two-bedroom house connected to national electricity grid is one of her achievements from the VSL besides assets such as livestock.
Saikonde says she also plans to build a new house to be rented out as a way of sustaining her income.
Yoneco coordinator for Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) Project in Mulanje, Blessings Sabao, expresses satisfaction with the intervention.
She says saving adolescent girls and young women from GBV is one of the objectives of the youth-centred organisation.
Sabao says with finances from Global Fund through Action Aid to Christian Aid in partnership with Yoneco and Malawi Girl Guides Association, AGYW Project is implemented to reduce incidences of HIV among girls and young women aged between 15 and 24.
She says the intervention attempts to address negative gender and socio-cultural norms; strengthen community systems and integrate interventions meant to contribute to the attainment of sustainable development goals.
“One of the project’s focus areas was to economically empower adolescent girls and young women through VSL groups. We hope when women and girls are economically empowered, they cannot indulge in transactional sex and this will also give them authority to negotiate for safer sex.
“Furthermore, it was conceived that when young women are economically empowered, they would be financially independent, thereby reducing their susceptibility to GBV,” says Sabao.