CIVICUS speaks with Ephraim Chimwaza, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE), a Malawian reproductive health and women’s rights civil society organisation (CSO). CESOCODE works to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence (GBV) against adolescent girls and young women and to promote their human rights and wellbeing through advocacy, research, education, training and the provision of basic reproductive health services.
What is the situation of young women and girls in Malawi?
In Malawi, half the population lives below the poverty line. Girls face more obstacles than boys in accessing education and job opportunities, and many girls don’t know their legal rights. Lack of access to opportunities also drives child marriage, which is another major factor that hinders the rights of girls.
Malawi has committed to eliminating child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and has also ratified several international instruments to that end, but still, 42 per cent of girls in Malawi are married before the age of 18 and almost 10 per cent are married before they turn 15. Among some ethnic groups, arranged marriages are commonly used to create alliances between families. Throughout the country, poorer families often marry off their daughters to reduce their financial burden or in an attempt to offer them a chance at better life. In other cases, they marry them off if they get pregnant, to avoid bringing dishonour to their families. Some parents in desperate situations also force their daughters to have sex in exchange for money or food.
Violence against young women and adolescent girls is commonplace. One in four girls has experienced recent violence by a partner, but few seek help. Social acceptance of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls is pervasive, even among young people. Not surprisingly, adolescent girls continue to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic. The number of girls aged 10 to 19 years who are living with HIV is on the rise, as adolescent girls account for nearly three in four of new infections.
How do you help address these challenges?
We have been active since 2009, focusing on promoting girls’ rights and specifically on ending child marriage. To that end, we work with communities and their leaders to encourage girls to stay in school. We offer girls a safe space to access sexual and reproductive healthcare, and we provide counselling to girls who are affected by GBV.
We are also members of a global initiative called Girls Not Brides, which includes more than 1,300 CSOs from over 100 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential by increasing access to health, education and opportunities. Through that partnership, we bring child marriage and related violations of girls’ rights to global attention, contribute to building an understanding of the issues and call for changes in laws, policies and programmes that will make a difference in the lives of millions of girls.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted on girls in Malawi, and how have you managed to continue your work?
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a negative impact on girls in Malawi. We are already seeing it in the communities that we serve. The social distancing measures imposed by the government have led to school closures. As health facilities and mobile clinics also suspended their operations, access to sexual and reproductive health services, which was already limited, decreased further. Under lockdown, cases of GBV and sexual abuse have increased, but reporting has decreased. Most girls are unable to go out and report GBV and have to keep living with their abusers and fearing for their lives.
Our programmes and activities have been affected by the social distancing measures imposed by the government to diminish the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have been unable to conduct physical meetings with girls and provide them with vital services like condoms and contraceptives. Girls cannot move out from their homes to attend meetings, workshops or conferences, as all public gatherings have been banned to uphold social distancing.
However, we have continued to reach out to girls through various means.
First, we are reaching out through social media and mobile apps. We are using online platforms such as Facebook and mobile applications such as WhatsApp to disseminate messaging about public health and domestic violence prevention. We have developed a Bluetooth mobile-to-mobile messaging service, which allows us to check in with girls and for them to let us know if they are at risk. We have also produced a short podcast focusing on domestic violence against girls. This includes a version in sign language, so that we can ensure girls who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t excluded.
Second, we are using community radios and television to provide tailored messaging and talk show content to reach out to girls in their homes with GBV prevention messages. These also include sign language interpretation.
Third, we continue our community engagement work, spreading messages via word of mouth or loudspeakers. We use our vehicle to drive around the communities and disseminate information about GBV prevention and the promotion of girls’ rights, including the prevention of child marriage.
Fourth, we are distributing printed outreach material that lays out the dangers of violating the rights of girls and explains where to report violence against girls. We do this through flyers and brochures as well as by hanging posters in places where girls frequently pass by, such as shops, water kiosks and mini markets. These materials are always written in the local language and include pictures to make content easier to understand.
As a result, we have been able to continue our work and we have not abandoned the girls who rely on us at a time when they may need us the most.
What do you think is the key to the good results you obtained?
I think there are three main factors that account for the good results that we have obtained.
First, we have kept community leaders and other key stakeholders engaged with a policy of zero tolerance for GBV against girls. We conducted online meetings and shared podcast programming with relevant stakeholders who work with girls that teaches positive and healthy relationship skills to prevent violence against girls and promote reproductive health for girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, we have identified low-cost tools to keep girls engaged and have continued to empower them during the pandemic. We have done this both by using new technologies where available and accessible, and by reaching out in other ways to girls in communities with no access to social media.
Third, we have pushed for the integration of GBV prevention messaging into COVID-19 prevention materials for healthcare providers to reach out to girls and provide them with full support and protection – not just against the coronavirus but also against endemic violations of their rights.