Amid the flurry of excitement the new railway line project has generated in Malawi, Mphatso sits dejectedly outside her rented house around Zalewa Trading Centre in Neno.
For two weeks, Mphatso has not seen her husband who works for a contractor involved in building the railway line from Kachaso in Chikhwawa to connect with the Nacala Corridor, via Neno and Balaka districts.
She says her husband has not been home since he got his last salary, and blames the railway project for the hardship she and her three children have been experiencing since the family moved to the area.
And when a group of about 50 men and women visit her area to educate people about gender-based violence (GBV), Mphatso seizes the opportunity to speak about her suffering.
“My husband has stopped supporting us,” she tells the Men’s Travelling Conference (MTC), a group of male and female activists who are travelling, campaigning against GBV. “It is because of sex workers.”
While the whole nation is understandably agog with the new railway line which has already created hundreds of jobs, the project has brought suffering to some families of men working on the railway line.
Sex workers are said to be flocking to Zalewa in droves in a bid to make a fortune out of the $1.1 billion project, which is intended to carry coal mined in Tete, Mozambique to the deep water port at Nacala.
But the sex workers are not going to Zalewa looking for employment from the contractors building the railway line. They target men who stay around the area while they construct the 137 kilometre railway line.
And it appears the sex workers’ machinations are bearing fruit, if concerns married women in the area raised at the MTC during this year’s 16 Days of Activism against GBV are anything to go by.
MTC is an annual awareness campaign that takes place during the 16 Days of Activism from November 25 (the International Day against Violence against Women) to December 10 (the UN Human Rights Day).
The MTC, spearheaded by Men for Gender Equality Now (Megen), heard stories of men abandoning their families for days or weeks, holed up in rest houses lavishing their money on sex workers.
The MTC team was a mix of people who included civil society groups, journalists, religious leaders, and officers from the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) and Malawi Police Service.
Megen is a society of men and women activists who engage in community sensitisation and education work, advocacy and campaigning to challenge inequality between men and women, transform harmful masculinities into positive ones and put an end to GBV.
Travelling in a hired 70-seater bus, the team educated crowds at various points in the Southern Region on the evils of GBV through speeches, song and drama during this year’s campaign, whose theme was ‘Peace begins from the home to the world; let’s challenge gender-based violence’.
MTC speakers told the crowd at Zalewa that the suffering that some women around the area were being subjected to by their husbands should not be condoned because it amounts to GBV.
Emma Kaliya, Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC) programme manager, says there is a general outcry on husbands who ‘disappear’ once they have a little more money, claiming it was common in tobacco-growing districts such as Kasungu, Dowa, Ntchisi and Mchinji.
She says: “As for Mwanza and Neno, it is all about the new railway line project. A lot of men have been employed by some companies that are working on this project.”
She adds that men are earning money that they never used to earn and, therefore, their lifestyle has also changed. According to her, some women in the area complain of husbands who have abandoned their families altogether.
“They say these men can disappear for as long as two weeks without regard to their wives and children,” Kaliya says.
A Brazilian company Vale Logistics Limited has subcontracted Mota-Engil to build the railway line, which is expected to be completed in 2014 and will be fully operational in 2015.
The project will benefit 4 500 people, of whom 70 percent will be Malawians. Some 1 860 people have already been employed. President Joyce Banda laid the foundation stone for the project on December 6 this year.
“While we very much appreciate such projects, they also come with many challenges in communities like the one in question,” says Kaliya, who was one of the speakers at Zalewa.
“Instead of using the resources to further develop livelihoods of their families and appreciate development, they choose to put their lives at risk by engaging in behaviour that can easily lead them to contracting the HIV virus.”
Kaliya says such behaviour is also a form of GBV. She advises victims of such violence to report to the Victim Support Unit of the police, non-government organisations and social welfare offices.
Mphatso says she had a happy family before her husband got a job with the project. But without warning, he started sleeping out and stopped providing for the family.
Mphatso blames commercial sex workers who have flocked to the area from other districts. Sometimes, she says, her children go without meals because she has no money.
“But I am not the only one being tormented by sex workers. Many women whose husbands are employed by the project are suffering. Instead of the project giving us joy, the opposite is happening,” she says.
The UN defines violence against women as any act that results in physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or in private life.
David Odali, publicity secretary for 2012 MTC, says there is need for “proactive interventions” targeting communities along the new railway line, and that husbands should be reached with GBV messages.
“The project is a wonderful thing as it is economically viable. But communities in the project’s impact areas should be more responsible,” says Odali, who is executive director for Umunthu Foundation.
The activism period has been used as a strategy by individuals and groups around the world to call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. The strategies include raising awareness about GBV as a human rights issue at various levels, and strengthening local work on violence against women.
Members of Megen travel to remote areas of the country, meeting men and women at selected points such as markets to raise awareness on the role men can play in ending GBV and challenging unequal power relations between men and women.
Megen chapters from Kenya and Tanzania joined their Malawian counterparts during this year’s 16 Days of Activism that the MHRRC organised with funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy.