Sawako and her husband, the British High Commissioner Micheal Nevin will soon be heading back to England after a successful tour of duty in Malawi. While in the country, Sawako focused on women empowerment programmes to uplift the lives of women, especially girls. Our reporter HOWARD MLOZI caught up with Sawako to discuss her projects and if she is satisfied with what she has achieved in Malawi. Experts:
Why were you so interested girls’ empowerment in Malawi?
This is my second time in Malawi. I first came here with my husband and stayed for three years from 2000. When I came back, I learnt that a Japanese organisation, Japan Overseas Cooperative Association (JOCA) was looking for someone, who could launch their school-feeding project at Kazomba Primary School in Mzimba district. I took up the job and immediately started visiting Mzimba as part of the preparation for the actual work. During one of the visits to the school, I discussed broadly with the schools’ then headmistress Rosemary Kamanga and when I was inquiring on why there is poor girls’ school attendance rate and high school dropout rate, she revealed to me that there are older women in the villages, who discourage girls from concentrating on school and instead these girls are married off. She said this happens to most girls in Standard Four and other senior classes. It is this conversation that introduced me to the serious problems that affect girls and women in Malawi. I then thought about intervening to change the story.
I also learnt from pupils at Kazomba that they were missing classes during their menses because of lack of sanitary pads. This is one of the main factors that are keeping many girls away from school in Malawi.
The good thing is that I learnt about reusable sanitary pads being made in Malawi and how friendly they are. I started looking for a reliable organisation that is promoting production and distribution of sanitary pads. I chose to work with Girls Empowerment Network (Genet).
What initiatives did you take to intervene in the mentioned plight of girls?
Among other initiatives aimed at keeping girls in school, I came up with a Dream Dinner to help Genet raise K2.7 million to reach out to 500 girls with a set of sanitary pads and a hygiene training session. The main participants for Dream Dinner were members of the donor community, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and senior management from private companies. This was to raise awareness on the fact that some girls are unable to go to school because they do not have sanitary pads. By having opinion leaders as guests at these forums, I thought the message would spread quickly and attract more interventions.
Why do you think Dream Dinner became a special event and highly patronised?
I wanted to have a fundraising event with a twist so people feel willing to pay for. It also needed to be really special and unusual to draw people’s attention to Genet’s sanitary pad project. I spoke to four embassies in Lilongwe, including my husband’s office. They allowed releasing their chefs to prepare a four-course meal for a dinner. Dream Dinner meant the best dinner in Lilongwe as well as an event that ensured that girls realise their dreams. It took place at the British High Commissioner’s residence in October 2015. There was a starter (sushi) cooked by the Japanese Ambassador’s chef, a fish course by the Norwegian, a meat course by British and a dessert by an American. It turned-out to be a big success. Many organisations supported us.
Which other programmes have you carried out in Malawi?
There is the vulnerable girl’s project which is sponsored by Standard Bank and TNM. I have done two message song projects to promote girls education as I believe that music is a powerful tool in spreading messages. The first song is called Msungwana Shayina. I engaged celebrated musician Lucius Banda. The song tries to advocate for change of mind on girls education.
The song goes:
Girls can do lots more than house chores
Send your girls to school
Give them time to grow
Give them time to think what’s best for them
Let your girls shine
For the bright future of girls
For the bright future of Malawi
Currently the song is used by United Nations (UN) agencies including Unicef and UN Women and other NGOs whenever they have girls’ empowerment programmes.
The other song is Reach Out (4 ur Dreams) written by the Nyau King Tay Grin. It was released in June this year. It is addressed directly to girls, encouraging them to keep going to school, work hard and make their own choice for their lives so they can reach out for their dreams. For the production of the song, it was a team work of Akwame Bandawe, deputy mayor for Lilongwe, my husband and Tay Grin. I hope this song will also be used by many organisations to reach out to many girls with the message.
What is your message to girls in Malawi?
Girls in Malawi are faced by many challenges to realise their goals but I plead with them to work hard and ensure they finish at least primary education. As the song Reach Out (4 ur Dreams) goes, it’s your right to get primary education, which will be the foundation for whatever you would like to do in the future.
What are your plans now?
It has been my wish to do more for girls and I wanted to reach to more other girls with my Reach Out (4ur Dreams), but unfortunately my time in Malawi was limited. We are going back. I will definitely keep in touch with the passionate and talented people I have worked with and I will try to provide support wherever possible.
Your last words?
The school feeding programme which JOCA started at Kazomba has improved pass rates during the 2014/15 academic year. It was handed over earlier this year to another Japanese NGO called Seibo Maria, and I am also involved. Seibo Maria has just announced that the programme will be expanded to all 12 schools in the school zone and possibly wider area in the future. I hope this will improve boys and girls’ learning environment and help them keep attending school. n