Faith Phiri, 35, is a woman with a passion for helping young girls and women through their vulnerabilities. With so many challenges that this group of people face, Faith has made it her problem to bring about changes in their lives. She is particularly concerned with early marriages, exploitation and general struggles girls and women face in our society. She believes there is an end to reducing challenges and struggles her fellow women face through her organisation, the Girls Empowerment Network (Genet). She speaks to Caroline Somanje.
What exactly does Genet do?
Genet Malawi works to strengthen and intensify young women voices by empowering them to be advocates of their own rights, be able to protect their peers and be able to claim their rights from duty bearers. We strengthen the capacity of adolescent girls and boys, women and men champions by training them in gender, sexual reproductive health, children’s and women’s rights; advocacy and leadership development.The NGO believes that through encouraging the leadership of girls, women and their participation in key issues uplifts them to benefit the entire community and nation at large.
How many girls do you reach out to and from which areas?
We reach out to over 10,000 girls from Blantyre, Chiradzulo, Mulanje and Mzimba districts. We target girls from peri-urban and rural areas. These include adolescent girls at risk such as street girls, orphans, girls with disabilities, child brides, child survivors of sexual exploitation, girls living with HIV/Aids, child mothers and poor young women.
What is the rate of school dropout from early marriages?
Malawi is currently ranked within the top 10 countries that have the highest rates of child marriages. Early marriage severely hampers a girl’s chance at attaining an education as it forces her to drop out of school. It also endangers her health and obstructs her personal growth and development. This harmful practice consequently triggers a continuum of violations that continue throughout a girl’s life and throughout generations. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of girls in Malawi marry before the age of 18, with roughly 9 per cent marrying around the age of 15.
Where do you get you funding from?
Genet gets support from various national and international partners.
Can you tell me the structures Genet has?
We have a board of trustees which is comprised of seven young people, five of which are young women. Genet has employed eight staff members and we have over 15 international and national staff volunteers working on various projects in our target districts. We have also established over 100 girls networks and we work with over 100 community volunteers.
When was this NGO established and how did it start?
Ever since I was young, girls and women have been the centre of my interest and passion. Having witnessed and experienced the struggles girls and young women face in our society, I always thought that they must be a way to end or reduce challenges girls and women face. In 2007, I was working in a youth project and had the privilege of interacting with many young people and youth organisations. A friend of mine Edward Kankhomba introduced me to an online youth platform called Global Youth Coalition on HIV/Aids (GYCA) where I learnt a lot of things in terms of youth programming on HIV/Aids and related issues.
I later participated in a project management online course which not only awarded me a Certificate but also a $1500 (about K645 000 in today’s exchange rate) grant for developing the best project. With this grant, I approached another friend Yamikani Banda who helped me to mobilise 50 girls from Misesa and Zingwangwa to create a safe space where they could share their struggles, energise each other and explore solutions. In this space, girls also discussed various issues including HIV/Aids, education and gender based violence. The experience was motivating and satisfying. I started consulting several young people on the possibility of establishing a girl’s organisation and I got overwhelming support. The need was just enormous. In early 2008, I, Joyce Mkandawire and several others started the process of registering the organisation and we got registered in September 2008.
What are the common problems girls in the country face which impede on their access to education?
Value systems, meaning less value put on girls’ education. Girls’ roles are confined to domestic work and therefore our community does not see the value of educating them. Lack of education support and unavailability of girl friendly sanitary facilities also limit chances of girls of completing their education.
Harmful cultural practices and beliefs that encourage girls to marry early and start bearing children is also a barrier to girls’ education. Rampant violence against girls in schools including sexual harassment from teachers and older pupils prevents girls from going to schools. The problem is compounded by inexistence or unfriendly reporting mechanisms and systems that bar girls from reporting violence. Unplanned and early pregnancy is also a common reason why girls drop out of school. This is because of a knowledge gap on sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) and also family planning programmes that do not target them and hence they are excluded from accessing the services and information they need so badly.
Who is Faith Phiri?
I am a very good wife to Dominic Phiri, great mother to Hannah, Grace and many other sons and daughters God has graciously given me. I am a Christian, a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. Building and raising girls and young women leaders has become a way of life for me.
Tel me your education background and upbringing.
Since my earliest school days, I have been interested in getting educated although I was being discouraged by my society. I was constantly encouraged and inspired by my parents and enhanced by my teachers. While my mother complained that I am too lazy in doing household chores, she encouraged me to work hard at school so that I should not have “problems” in my marriage. My father encouraged me to work hard because he believed in me. This has stayed with me into adult life and I now find myself realising the importance and beauty of hard work as well as staying principled and focused. My aim therefore is to develop this approach to life and to share it with others through everything I do. In terms of work, this means motivating and encouraging others by my own positive example, doing my best in everything and never being afraid to say: “I don’t know”. Rather, I hope to inspire a creative and positive way of dealing with the various problems that are a part of everyone’s lives.
I did my primary in various schools before being selected to Likangala Secondary School. Later, I transferred to Kasungu Secondary School from where I was selected to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health at the Polytechnic. I have recently graduated with a Masters of Public Health from the College of Medicine.
In 2012 I was awarded a global change leaders program from Coady International Institute in Canada. I am a global change leader.
What is your advice to women and girls?
My fellow girls and women, you can be whatever you want. It takes courage, determination and focus. Finally, my personal motto is something that has stayed with me and sums up my approach to life: “A good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”
Any last words?
I will end by saying these words of wisdom. Every great achievement in life is a product of positive thinking of the mind. Everything is possible and together we can make a better world for every girl and woman.