The women we serve in Northern Malawi, are born into poverty, they have no rights but a myriad of responsibilities, even as girls. They carry water on their heads when they are as young as four or five, they collect firewood, they are responsible for the growing and cooking of food, and really don’t have a life. Males are fed first, preferentially educated and have any of the rights that exist. But there’s worse, like traditional cultural practices, trafficking, mutilation, early marriage and childbirth complications.
Educated girls have fewer children, are better able to care for their children, demand better access to health care and information, practice safer sex, have better access to jobs, and are more likely to send their children to school.
Two years ago we took the plunge and unashamedly focused on women and girls, while in no way neglecting the willing men who come on board. I suppose you might say it’s unfair, but what’s fair. Revolutionary, is what a friend in development called it, when I explained that we always ask women what they need and work with them, on their plans. They are the only people who can empower themselves and we supply a little Inspiration, Education and Challenge. Our work with women is around Self Help groups, where groups of women who come together, talk, think and look at possible futures. They save, lend to each other, do small business. Later these women form clusters.
Not surprisingly every group wants clean water, then preschools and adult education, nutrition and women’s issues make up the first pack. We work with women’s clusters, within this Self Help framework and to say we are shocked, frightened and disbelieving of the progress, would be a huge understatement. Hope is a powerful driver and a little success is all the fuel they need. They can and they will succeed, in small steps and sometimes, giant leaps, because the overcome so much, every day, already.
While working with the women’s groups we gradually realized that only a few girls qualified to go to Government secondary schools and even fewer had the fees to attend. Of course there are the uniforms, clothes, books and other necessities, which all add up for the poorest. When there is a choice parents educate boys. Even when girls get to school there are sanitary issues, which keep them away for days each month. Four years ago we began a programme to pay fees for girls on the basis of requests from their schools, but this year we sent a notice to all schools in the area and now have 82 girls seeking help.
Some need help with fees, some need everything and somewhere they live with their grannies, we have to support the grannies as well, to enable the girls to get to school everyday. We have decided to take all of them on for the first term. Over the years we have supported the building of three hostels for girls. At the moment we are working on a fourth and beginning another. But we now realize that the issue of child protection needs to be addressed urgently. Everyone talks about it, there are Libraries of policies, but little or no action, so we need a new plan here as well, to ensure the safety of our little girls.