Girls are perceived as inferior, marriage material (brides), weak, unwise and unequal to boys and men in most rural areas of the country as observed by Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) Malawi.
Genet states, for instance, that such perceptions and beliefs have escalated violence against girls and women, and fuels adolescent sexual violence, a traditional practice called kusasa fumbi where adolescent girls (on her first monthly period at puberty, usually between 9-12 years) are forced to have sexual intercourse to cleanse themselves of ‘childhood curses’.
Such traditions promote early sexual orientation and usually adolescents who have undergone through this ceremony are expected to marry and such marriages are usually arranged or forced. www.genetmalawi.org
In view of such problems, Sawako Nevin, wife of out-going British High Commissioner, Michael Nevin, decided to intervene and change the story of the Malawian girl and woman.
She is not the only one who has tried to improve things in that area. Renowned Dedza Chief Kachindamoto (Theresa Kachindamoto) has also stood up against school drop-outs and early marriages, earning international recognition as a result and earning herself the title of ‘marriage terminator’.
For Sawako, it all started during her frequent visits to Mzimba District as she was going to launch a school feeding project at Kazomba Primary School under the Japan Overseas Cooperative Association (Joca).
Enquiring about the low turn up of girls to schools, she came to realise that most rural women often discourage girls from concentrating on school, resulting in most of the girls being married off.
Apart from that, Sawako learnt that most girls stayed out of school during their menses because of lack of sanitary pads, one of the main factors that is keeping many girls away from school, according to her. This is how she started working with Genet, giving rural girls reusable sanitary pads.
She birthed the idea of Dream Dinner, which helped Genet to raise K2.7 million to reach out to over 500 girls with sets of reusable sanitary pads and hygiene training sessions.
“I organised fundraising events to raise awareness of washable sanitary pads in partnership with Genet. Lack of hygiene materials is causing girls to stay at home whenever they are having their periods, causing a high drop-out rate. The fund was used to provide girls with washable sanitary pads in Mchinji and Lilongwe rural areas and their attendance rate went up immediately,” Sawako explains.
Genet executive director Faith Phiri said in an interview that Sawako will be greatly missed for her passion and dedication in supporting girls at risk of dropping out of school, when she finally leaves Malawi.
“We worked as a team. We learnt from each other, planned together and moved together, and together we were able to reach the most marginalised girls in rural areas and were able to keep them in school,” says Phiri.
In addition to that, Sawako has teamed up with local professional artists and done two campaign song projects in the past three years.
“The first song is called Msungwana Shaina composed by Lucius Banda. It urges adults around girls to keep sending them to school, not only for girls but in the long run for themselves and the country. The second song Reach Out (4 ur Dreams was written by Tay Grin, featuring Akwame Bandawe (Lilongwe deputy mayor), my husband Michael and myself. It encourages girls to work hard at school, make their own decisions and try hard to make their dreams come true. Both songs are aiming to change people’s traditional mindsets against gender equality. I hope these messages keep spreading and eventually changes people’s conception and behaviour,” says Sawako.
Her last project in Malawi is to sensitise boys in primary schools to learn how they can respect girls and treat them equally.
“In a partnership with UN Women, Tay Grin, who is a UN Women’s HeForShe campaign champion, we will visit primary schools and talk mainly to boys using cartoon boards with messages such as ‘if you see girls drawing water, let’s help them’ or ‘Sweeping school compound is not only girls’ job. Let’s take turns.’
“And those boys will become HeForShe champions themselves. Tay Grin is a superstar among children, too, and has an excellent track record in youth empowerment projects in Botswana and Malawi. He will be a perfect big brother for the boys. It is sad that I will not be able to watch the programme blossom, but I am glad that it is in the safe hands of Tay Grin and UN Women,” Sawako adds.
She further notes that girls in rural Malawi have so many challenges even when they want to continue their education citing family expectations to do house chores, early marriages/pregnancies and gender-based violence at school, among other things.
“But it is people’s traditional mindset against girls education which lies under all these challenges. It takes time to change people’s mindset, but we need to start somewhere. It takes a long time to see the fruits of education but I’d like people to have a long-term view. If you make an effort to keep your girls at school, you, your community and your country will benefit in the end,” she says.
She advises younger girls and boys to work hard at school, pointing out that primary education is their right and it gives them a base for whatever they would like to do in future.
A mother of three, Sawako says she met Michael when she was working at the British Consulate in Osaka, Japan where her job was to attract Japanese companies’ investment to the United Kingdom in form of factories and research centres.
“Michael was posted to Osaka. While chatting, we quickly realised we have a similar taste in music. That’s where it all started. After we got married in Japan, we lived in Malawi, UK and Kenya, and Malawi for the second time. I had never lived abroad before I met Michael, so, marrying him completely changed my life,” recalls Sawako.
Describing her stay in Malawi, Sawako says her family has enjoyed the peacefulness, beautiful nature and pleasant weather, but often felt frustrated as things do not move as fast as expected.
“People’s lives in the villages have not changed much since we were here in 2000. We really hope their quality of life will improve without further delay,” she says, adding that she is already missing the talent and passion of Malawian people she worked with over the past four years.
“They are hard working and willing to support whatever I was aiming to do. It is my privilege to develop friendships with them and it makes it so hard to leave Malawi,” she says.