Communities in Malawi are stepping up efforts to end harmful practices.
This is the story of Tilimbike Safe Community Space in Traditional Authority Dzoole in Dowa.
“Now I know that I have the right to quality education, the right to freely express my opinion and that early marriage is not a solution. The safe space has made me aware of my human rights,” says Alinati Fackson, 17.
She urges her peers to stay in school and focus on our education.
The 16-year-old girl, from Chiludzi Village, is among adolescent girls being mentored to avoid child marriage and teen pregnancy under the Spotlight Initiative funded by the European Union (EU).
The initiative targets the most at-risk groups to eliminate violence against women and girls, including child marriage.
Alinati has renewed hope to achieve her potential as she now makes informed decisions about her life, body and future.
“From weekly safe space sessions, I have realised that early marriage is not good as one can easily get deadly complications associated with early childbirth,” she says.
Giving adolescent girls and young women space where they discuss their sexuality, rights, choices and shared challenges without peering intruders is the cornerstone of these mentorship sessions.
Licksani Alice, 19, spent four months in marriage last year.
She has become a living example for teen girls in her circle to remain in school until their dreams come true.
“Early marriage puts young girls at risk of violence, worse poverty and birth complications such as fistula and even maternal deaths,” she says.
During the mentorship sessions, girls learn life skills as well as sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The girls have learnt to speak out and challenge social norms that fuel violence, child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
“I can proudly say girls are becoming change-makers and they will reach their fullest potential,” says Girls Empowerment Network programme coordinator Twambilire Kayuni.
During her tour of Malawi last week, UNFPA regional director Julitta Onabanjo visited the safe Alinati’s space and urged community leaders and district officials to work together to end gender-based violence and harmful practices.
“The decisions men take affect women, and it’s important that they treat us [women] as equals. We want to hold hands together to make Malawi a better place for everyone,” she said.
She asked the girls being mentored by their slightly older peers to ensure that there is no teenage pregnancy, no gender-based violence (GBV)and no child marriage.
“They can only do that if the community enables them to do that,” said Onabanjo.
Senior Chief Dzoole said the rural community is determined to keep girls in school “so we can have educated adolescent and young women in our community, who will make the prosperous”.
He said the Spotlight Initiative has given adolescent girls and young women a voice and the ability to call out GBV perpetrators.
“More girls now understand the need and where to report gender-based violence,” said the traditional leader.
Dowa District Council chairperson Martin-Luka Phiri says a new Malawi without child marriage, teen pregnancy and GBV looks possible.
“Let’s work together to end violence against women. We are ready to make this a reality,” he said.
The mentorship sessions are proving effective in combating harmful practices to ensure adolescent girls and young women remain in school.
“During Covid-19, there were zero teenage pregnancies and zero child marriages among the mentees. This proves that girls are able to make decisions over their bodies and over their lives, and also determine what their future will be,” says Beatrice Kumwenda, UNFPA gender programme officer and focal point for the UN joint Spotlight Initiative.
As thousands of adolescent girls and young women found themselves at home due to Covid-related school closure, community-led safe spaces offered the mentees an opportunity to interact with their peers.
“I am happy to see that the girls are on the right track and they must continue to stay the course,” says Ivo Hoefkens, head of the EU delegation to Malawi.
About 360 girls are under mentorship in Dowa, Ntchisi, Mzimba, Nkhata Bay, Machinga and Nsanje.
The groups are creating a cadre of 7 000 young women with knowledge and assertiveness to challenge harmful practices that fuel gender-based violence and support survivors of GBV.
“Investing in adolescent girls and young women will make a huge difference and bring sustained prosperity to these communities,” says Maria-Jose Torres, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Malawi.
The Spotlight Initiative promotes the Agenda 2030 to leave no one behind as well as sustainable linkages to SRH rights.