17 October 2019
Breaking News

Stepping up game in girls’ sexual health and rights

Written by  James Mwale

Lilongwe, October 1, 2015: Call it culture, but Mirriam Saifoni (not her real name) calls it hell she was forced to enter. When she reached standard eight, her parents called her and told her she had been betrothed and had to prepare for marriage. Her friends were preparing to start secondary school.

Her resistance would not match the cultural institution that seemed to turn a blind eye.

Now 15 and a mother of one has been withdrawn from an early marriage and reinstated back to school.

She has been blessed with a new lifeline from the Center for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (CYECE) under the Unite for Body Rights project (UFBR).

The UFBR, a multi-disciplinary Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) programme involving five partner non-profit making organisations addressing a similar cause was inspired by the escalating number of girl school dropouts who resort to marriage and early pregnancies.

“What inspired the project is that some of the partner organisations under the SRHR programme were already implementing sexual and reproductive health campaigns targeting both mothers and the youth but the impact was not as significant because they were working as individual entities,” explains Talimba Bandawe, SRHR Malawi Alliance’s National Programme’s Coordinator.

She adds that the project was designed to increase the number of girls who are able to make informed decisions about their sexual rights by up taking family planning methods, reporting abuse and going back to school for dropouts.

Bandawe further discloses that alliance, whose programme has been implemented in the three districts of Dedza, Mangochi and Chikhwawa, was also set up to enhance capacity building among the partner organisations; bringing them together so they could learn from each other.

“We also deliberately implemented the programme in the respective districts because the partner organisations were already running sexual and reproductive health campaigns in them,” clarifies Bandawe.

Giving testimony to SRHR’s impact, Ireen Zimba, head teacher for Bembeke Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in Dedza, reveals that there has been a remarkable back-to-school turnout at her CDSS ever since the project was implemented by CYECE in 2011.

She points out that her school was among those hit the hardest by high girl drop outs with 21 girls dropping out between 2012 and 2011 alone.

She however appreciates that “with the SRHR programme, there has been remarkable decline in the dropout rates with only 4 girls leaving school in the year between 2014 and 2015.”

Apart from withdrawing girls from early marriages, youths are also drilled in Family Planning to ensure that there is decline in early and unwanted pregnancies which later result into early marriages.

According to statistics from Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) over 300,000 youths so far, called peer educators, have been drilled on how to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive education to their peers in Dedza.

“We have also held campaigns targeting churches and traditional leaders to adopt family planning methods which are restricted by some stereotypical religious and traditional beliefs,” explains Bandawe who appreciates that there has been commendable forthcoming by both church leaders and chiefs.

Complementing Bandawe’s appreciation, Group Village Head Ngwimbi of T/A Kachindamoto reveals that; “we have now grown to appreciate the knowledge imparted on us under the programme and most of us have set up by-laws with penalties to anyone clinging to barbaric traditional practices.”

The alliance has also oriented school teachers and health service providers on how best to deliver youth friendly comprehensive sexual health education and family planning methods.

With the comprehensive awareness campaign, Chikhwawa district has also seen a sharp increase in reported cases of sexual abuse after which the perpetrators are brought to justice.

According to Chikhwawa First Grade Magistrate, Gladstone Chirundu, abused girls used to suffer in silence due to lack of knowledge of their sexual rights with only 13 out of 40 possible cases reported in the year 2011.

“We have had a sharp increase in reported cases following the project,” explains Chirundu disclosing that the number of reported cases had gone up to 30 in 20 13, 26 in 2014, and 27 in 2015.

Much as there has been such tremendous achievements to be desired about, the Alliance’s National Programmes Coordinator points out that a scale up could achieve more impact saying; “There is still room for improvement as the project only targeted a few T/As in the targeted districts.”

Miriam Saifoni is among over 50 other girls who have been given such a second chance and they have all vowed that there will be nothing and no one to ever get into the way of their dreams.

With the project coming to an end in December 2015, the trained and oriented teachers and peer educators have also promised to continue spreading the SRHR messages in the projects’ aftermath.

Among the five organisations in the alliance are Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO), Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (CAVWOC) and Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation (CHRR) which joined the alliance in 2013.