Namkwanya is a type of gulewamkulu mask people of Traditional Authority Mwanza in Salima have been associating themselves with, when it comes to girls’ initiation ceremonies, for quite a period of time.
One by one, namkwanya could come to pick a girl from an initiation camp (tsimba) to have sexual intercourse with and he could do that with all the initiates whilst in masks to hide identity.
The traditional practice was being used as a means to confirm that now the initiates were of age.
“So, if there were 10 girls in an initiation camp at a particular time, namkwanya could come and have sexual intercourse with all of them, one by one without using any protective measure like a condom,” said T/A Mwanza, real name Chalendo MacDonald, 63.
Apart from performing such duties in initiation camps, namkwanya was being used to punish girls who were perceived to be rude in the communities. The punishment involved having unprotected sex with such girls.
But now, communities of T/A Mwanza have realised that this was infringing upon the rights of the initiates and putting the initiates and the gulewamkulu himself at risk of HIV infection.
Under the leadership of T/A Mwanza, herself a victim of Gender Based Violence (GBV), who has demonstrated her commitment and dedication to reduce vulnerability of women and girls to all sorts of violence and HIV infection, namkwanya and all sorts of cultural practices deemed harmful in the area have been eliminated.
Being herself illiterate, a Standard Two dropout and a GBV survivor, when MacDonald became T/A Mwanza in 2004, had a vision of championing girls and women empowerment in her area by among other things eliminating cultural practices deemed harmful and infringing upon women rights.
But she did not know how to accomplish her dream until the time the Malawi Interfaith Aids Association (MIAA) with funding from European Union (EU) through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) came into her area to implement the Girls Education and Women Empowerment (Gewe) project two years ago.
The aim of the project is to reduce gender inequalities between women, men, girls and boys in accessing productive resources and development opportunities as well as promoting decision-making in order to contribute positively to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and accelerate attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
“I now realise my dream of empowering women and girls and reducing their vulnerability to gender-based violence which put them at risk of HIV infection,” said T/A Mwanza.
Her area was recently, Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati, accompanied by Quuen Best Olimi of the Toro Kingdom, Uganda and MIAA executive director Robert Ngaiyaye. Mwanza said through the project chiefs in Salima led by T/A Mwanza have been very instrumental in addressing issues related to child marriage, promoting behaviour change for HIV prevention, harmful cultural practices, prevention, response and management of violence , girls’ education, promotion of sexual reproductive health and rights with a focus on ending adolescent pregnancies .
Under Gewe, communities of T/A Mwanza have among other things developed by-laws against harmful cultural and traditional practices.
These practices include early and forced marriages and initiation ceremonies.
The development of by-laws has seen a decrease as well as follow-up on child marriages and rescuing girls from forced marriages and bringing them back to school.
In 2010, Catherine Phiri who was then in Form One at Kambiya Community Day Secondary School was forced to get married to a man who impregnated her.
“Just after a year into this marriage, after the birth of my child, we broke up. But some women, under a mother group championed by the Gewe project, approached my parents to encourage me to go back to school. Now I am in Form Three and will be sitting for my Form Four examination soon,” testifies the 20-year-old Phiri.
Among others, religious leaders in T/A Mwanza’s area have stopped officiating marriages involving under-18s. There has also been a mushroom of adult literacy classes to assist different groups of women and out of school girls to read and write.
Ultimately, T/A Mwanza notes that whilst cultural and religious traditions play an important role in any community, they can also pose threats to community well-being when rigidly adhered to.
“That is why I have always emphasised that a multi-faith response involving religious and traditional leaders is needed to promote positive actions and overcome threats to community development,” she said.
Under T/A Mwanza’s leadership, her community has also institutionalised mother groups to look into the affairs of girls both at school and in the community.
The strengthening of these mother groups has seen a lot of drop-out girls going back to school and also the mother groups offer counselling to violated girls on their sexual reproductive and health rights including family planning and encourage them on reporting of all forms of violence occurring both at school and in their families and in the communities, community action groups and community victim supporting units have also been establishment which have among other things resulted into improved response to violence issues when they occur since community policing reside within the communities and are under the supervision of the chiefs.
Some have also helped in the establishment of one stop centres in their communities to provide for integrated services to violence survivors. In addition, the creation of community action groups for GBV response in the communities has been very effective in identifying violence cases and referring them to the Victim support units in the communities.
Kaliati and Queen Best visited T/A Mwanza as a way of recognising her efforts in Gewe and further motivate her to continue with the life-transforming work.
The traditional leaders hailed T/A Mwanza and borrowed a leaf from her on how they can champion a similar cause in their areas to ensure that common forms of GBV are addressed.
“Girls cannot grow up health and fulfil their dreams if you do not protect them from Aids. It is my belief that in societies like that of my country Uganda and Malawi can play a big role in promoting girls from the risks they face while growing up,” said Queen Best, adding that she was greatly encouraged by what T/A Mwanza was championing in her area