When her parents died, Marriam Phiri from M’noloma Village, Traditional Authority Pemba in Salima, aged 12 at the time, went to live with her uncle.
“I trusted him because he was my father’s brother,” she says.
One afternoon during lunch she suddenly felt drowsy after eating rice and drinking pineapple squash.
“I woke up in the hospital. When my uncle visited me, he told me not to tell anyone what happened or else he would kill me,” says Marriam.
He had drugged her with the intention of defiling her.
After that incident, Marriam did not go back to school. She also never went to live with her uncle again.
That marked the genesis of her inner battles, constantly blaming herself for what happened.
Bertha Kagwa was 15 when she faced a similar ordeal.
On her way home after writing her final examinations, her male friend invited her for a visit.
They had been friends for over three years. However, that afternoon he forced himself on her.
Such is the reality for thousands of girls in the country, with defilement and rape cases rising every day.
There are reports of infants being defiled by family members and even gang rapes among other forms of sexual violence.
Malawi Police Service indicate that there were 1 539 reported cases of defilement in 2018; 1 766 in 2019 and 1 501 cases reported between January and September 2020.
Her Liberty, a youth-led agency that supports young people on sexual and reproductive health issues, condemns such acts of sexual violence.
The organisation’s publicist Chimwemwe Mlombwa describes the rising cases of sexual violence among girls and young women as unsettling.
She says it feels scary to live in a country where women and girls fear that they may be the next victim of sexual abuse.
Says Mlombwa: “It is unfortunate that with issues such as rape, there is no better way for women and girls to protect their selves or feel safe in their own homes.
“We need to acknowledge and realise that nobody wakes up and says today seems like a nice day for me to experience gender-based violence.”
She says, now more than ever, it is important for Malawians to come together to combat this “awful reality”.
With the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in full swing, UN Women resident representative Clara Anyangwe banks her hope in the campaign.
She says it is an opportunity for government, civil society and influencers to spark a renewed sense of urgency and strengthen action to end violence against women and girls.
Anyangwe calls on stakeholders to fund essential services on GBV; respond to survivors’ needs by supporting health and social services; prioritise policy and justice delivery responses; as well as stop GBV from happening by challenging cultural and social norms.
Similarly, Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati highlights the need for coordinated efforts among different stakeholders—including community members—in addressing GBV.
She also emphasises the need to report GBV incidences, saying: “This is important because of the culture of silence which defeats our efforts to contain the vice.”
Kaliati says government and its partners are committed to ending GBV through the implementation of various programmes and legal frameworks.
The Spotlight Initiative, aimed at eradicating violence against women and girls, including sexual violence and harmful practices, is one of these programmes.
Others include campaigns such as Ending Child Marriages, HeForShe, Say No to Violence and Tithetse Nkhanza.
Some of the gender-related legal frameworks being implemented in the country to promote and protect the rights of women and girls include the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act and the Gender Equality Act.
Nevertheless, a huge responsibility lies in equipping people with knowledge of such laws that protect women against violence.
All things considered, UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka observes that the same collaboration between scientists, governments, civil society and the industry that worked in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is needed to end violence against women and girls.
She notes that survivors must have full access to justice, with reliable prosecution of perpetrators of violence and effective prevention of crimes.
Says Mlambo-Ngcuka: “One of the reasons that women report less than 40 percent of serious violent crimes against them or seek help of any sort, is their lack of faith in the system’s response.
“The turnaround starts with law schools and police academies that teach their cohorts to recognise and respond to abuse and be alert to discrimination.”