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MALAWI: Girls clubs spearhead gender equality

Photo: IRIN
Maureen leads the girl in their awareness campaign
Lilongwe, 29 October 2004 (PlusNews) - When 20-year-old Maureen Kumwenda formed an all-girls club in the local township of Area 18 in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, she faced a lot of resistance from her community.

She was accused of being a "prostitute" and spreading HIV/AIDS because the club provided information on the disease and sexual reproductive health.

"People used to complain and try to discourage us; parents would not allow their children to become involved," she told PlusNews.

In Malawi's patriarchal society, "girls face more issues than boys," admitted Wilfred Lichapa, an official in the ministry of youth.

Young women are expected to marry as early as 14 years of age, particularly in rural areas, and most school dropouts in the country are girls.

They are also encouraged to be submissive. "When they try to be assertive, they are asked, 'why are you trying to be a boy?'" Lichapa added.

To make matters worse, their biological make-up makes young women particularly vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

These factors, combined with low participation in "youth development efforts", such as clubs and peer education campaigns, prompted the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the youth ministry to target girls as part of the Southern African Youth (SAY) initiative funded by the United Nations Foundation, which sponsors youth projects in seven AIDS-affected countries in southern Africa.

Under the SAY project, girls are provided with vocational training in sewing, knitting, electronics and computers as well as support to form clubs, like the Area 18 All Girls Alliance (AGA) founded by Maureen and her friends. Youth-friendly clinics offering family planning and counselling are also part of the project.

Like many young girls in the country, Maureen did not have enough money to complete her schooling. She lives with her older sister, a retired civil servant who is the sole breadwinner in a family of 10.

But she recently completed her certificate course in information technology, and hopes to open a small workshop fixing computers to help her sister and relatives.

This might be difficult as her course was largely theoretical. To practice on a computer, Maureen would have to travel to the ministry of youth offices in town and request the use of their equipment.

Molophy Nkhwezule knitting at home
Molophy Nkhwezule has been more fortunate. After her vocational training in knitting ended earlier this year she bought the knitting machine she used during training and has established her own business, which she runs from the porch of her parent's house. She uses her earnings to help her parents pay for her siblings' school fees.

Nkhwezule is also a founding member of an AIDS TOTO (Say No to AIDS) club in her community and conducts awareness campaigns encouraging young girls to "stand on their own and not expect men to always give them things."

Back at Area 18 all girls' club, Maureen agreed. "With these skills, a girl can do something - now we can be more assertive; now people will take us seriously and realise that 'no' means 'no!'"

The club promotes abstinence and does not distribute condoms. "If a girl has made a mistake of having sex, we tell her she can have what is called a second virginity," she added.

Although there are only 23 registered members, the club meets three times a week at the local health centre, has regular visitors and conducts outreach activities in neighbouring communities.

It is Monday afternoon and the girls are at the centre, preparing to visit Ngoma township. A group of young men are sitting at the other end of the shady waiting area, and are soon joined by a small crowd of both men and women.

This is the Area 18 Youth Attention group, but the inequality between the sexes, with the young men dominating the group and dictating the group's activities, is what Maureen and the rest of the members of the all girls' club are trying to avoid.

Gift Njoloma, chairman of the mixed group, acknowledges the inequalities, but argues that girls-only clubs would achieve limited success.

"They cannot afford to sideline guys - it is difficult to influence change without the involvement of men," he warned.

UNFPA Programme Officer Perneline Dahl admitted that "the relationship between boys and girls still needs to be looked at [in the project]". Nevertheless, the role of young men had been emphasised during awareness-raising efforts in the community, said Lichapa.

Meanwhile, the skills the young girls are acquiring will go a long way towards challenging the country's prevailing stereotypes of women, and perhaps give them some confidence in their ability to act independently of men.

Apart from the obvious economic benefits, the project "affects and influences their whole lives and spills over to sex," said Dahl. "These girls are now empowered and know their worth."

Theme (s): Children,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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