“I had to go against some deeply-held traditions to persuade my people that girls need access to education, just like boys,” said village head Patete, watching as a group of girls walked to school in Malawi’s Machinga district.
In the past this would have been a rare sight in the village, as many girls stayed at home while boys went to school. Less than one-third of girls continue their education past primary school, mainly due to being married off early, falling pregnant or taking on duties in the family home. Nearly 50 per cent of girls in Malawi are married by age 18 – one of the highest child marriage rates in the world – and almost 30 per cent become mothers while they are themselves still children.
These are damaging norms that village head Patete is intent on changing, by challenging the way his community perceives women, girls and their roles in society. He has for years campaigned for recognition of the importance of gender equality, and recently attended a training session as part of the UN’s Spotlight Initiative, led by UNFPA and funded by the European Union. The training focused on ending all forms of violence against women and girls and increasing awareness of human rights and gender equality.
“It is something that in the past was somehow socialized in us, that women should do more work,” village head Patete said. “For instance, even if we are coming back from the field, the women carry all the farming equipment while the men stride ahead. At home, the wife has to cook again, while the husband is resting.”
Violence against girls and women is widespread in Malawi, with one-third of women reporting to have experienced violence, including sexual violence. “This training has given me a much broader outlook on these challenges. It has reinforced my view that we are abusing women,” he explained.
Fighting for education
The Spotlight Initiative provides safe spaces where women and girls who have experienced or are at risk of violence can go for shelter, support and a place to heal. The initiative also trains participants to become mentors, so they in turn can empower adolescent girls and young women to exercise their sexual and reproductive health and rights and prevent gender-based violence – including by challenging harmful practices among their own communities.
Now 20 years old and back in school, Stella John was pressured into an early marriage at age 17. She is a member of her village's Spotlight Initiative safe space and said, “If it wasn’t for their intervention, I would have been a housewife by now.”
Since she turned down a marriage proposal, she faced social stigma and discrimination among her community but found a refuge in the safe space, which offered her counselling and advice and helped her to focus on her goals.
After it was brought to his attention, village head Patete recently annulled the forced marriage of another 17-year-old girl to her 20-year-old boyfriend. “Many people think that if they marry off their daughter after she becomes pregnant, it’s a befitting punishment,” he explained. “On the contrary, that’s a big mistake. What the girl needs is a second chance. All those who are marrying off young girls are committing a crime.”
Championing girls’ rights in Malawi
In 2021, UNFPA followed up on more than 700 cases of child marriage, helping to annul more than 60 percent of them, together with community elders and local leaders who also supported the girls in returning to school.
Almost 70,000 women and girls accessed services through UNFPA-supported safe spaces, including sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial support and counselling. Of these, more than 23,000 attended the safe space mentoring programme, gaining new skills and strategies to target sexual and gender-based violence.
More than 1.4 million young people were reached with sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services across Malawi, and over 840,000 young people were reached with different types of youth-friendly health services, including information about family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Mr. Patete has since approached fellow community leaders to highlight the plight of women and girls and the responsibility of the leaders to change the way communities treat them, encouraging an end to harmful practices. “It’s hard to change the old ways of doing things, but we are making progress,” he said.
For Ms. John, the struggle has been uphill but worthwhile. She told UNFPA, “It’s not easy to be known as someone who turned down marriage for school, but that is what is driving me to fulfil my dream of becoming a doctor.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).