Breaking the dam in Malawi – Young Women Can Do it!

Spires partnerorganization in Malawi, the Network for Youth Development, is an active and highly influential force nationwide. Their staff members and volunteers has gained a significant position towards civil society and policy makers. NfYD consists of several suborganizations and projects aimed at youth empowerment and participation in all spheres of society. By means of active informational outreach and mobilization, NfYD works to ensure that young people gain access to training, education and knowledge about their civil rights. With this blog entry, we wish to pass on some of the eyeopening stories we were told during the workshop in Malawi this summer, so to increase awareness of the ways climate change impact the everyday lives of our fellow social activists as they feel it and live it in this very moment – with a particular focus on the gendered dimensions of climate change effect and response. And, importantly, we wish to highlight the will and drive towards change that exists within organizations that Spire collaborates with.
Cathy played the part of a corrupt chief as a part of a performance highlighting the challenges activists might encounter in their social outreach in the villages. Credit: Stina Lindholm

Cathy played the part of a corrupt chief as a part of a performance highlighting the challenges activists might encounter in their social outreach in the villages. Credit: Stina Lindholm

In addition to the Sustainable Lead Farmer Programme introduced in an earlier blog entry (read here and here), one of NfYDs main projects is the Young Women Can Do It-initiative. Both these initiatives are supported and funded by the Development Funds offices in Malawi, currently led by country director Thor Oftedal. The YWCDI-project has been a collaborative effort by Spire and DF from the beginning, and with support from ODW the initiative is now scaled up, and it has proved to be a great strategy that combines myriads of issues related to climate change and development. As a part of the collaboration, youths from Malawi and Norway has visited each other in our respective home lands, to learn more about effective ways to promote and ensure youth participation and gender equality. The workshop in Lilongwe this summer was yet another event in thechain of an ongoing collaboratio between Spire, DF, ODW and NfYD. We have written a short text on the interconnections between climate change and gender discourses in Malawi (read here), and as you can read, Malawian civil society is still confronted with discrimitating practices towards female actors. The YWCDI-initative seeks to address the very heart of the issues affecting young women today, and to increase confidence in their own voice and convictions. In the presentation posted on NfYDs web pages, YWCDI works to
“(…) empower young women from different communities for personal and social transformation. Furthermore, it aims at inspiring young women (girls) to have the voice, ability and problemsolving capacity to speak up, be decision makers, create visionary change and realize their full potential within their communities.”1
Today, more than 50 Young Women Can Do It-clubs has been established in Malawi, and the clubs invite youth and young girls in villages across the country to participate in leadership and organizational training, political lobbying and networking. The clubs are established at schools and in local communities. The “Back to School”-program is a main focus, and it is particularly directed towards girls whom for economic or other reasons are taken out of school. The current illiteracy rates among female actors is higher than 30%, and changig these numbers are among YWCDIs main objectives. They also provide guidance and access to courses on numerous topics, so that the girls can learn skills and develop personal abilities in order to become more selfreliant. Several of the local initiatives combine such empowerment efforts with mitigation or adaptation measures related to climate change. The YWCDI-clubs targets a myriad of social issues by creating the space for active youth participation, by empowering young girls through leadership training and by doing widespread awareness campaigns in the communities on the topic of climate change. YWCDI exemplifies how and why social activists should aim towards dynamic approaches to the challenges a community, a nation and we as a globe face.
Augustin, Phalles and Cathy during our theatre workshop on leadership and organisational skills. Photo credit: Hanne Krystad

Augustin, Phalles and Cathy during our theatre workshop on leadership and organisational skills. Photo credit: Hanne Krystad

The YWCDI-clubs are making significant and valuable impact in the lives of the youth in Malawi. Several of the workshop participants began their socially engagement through YWCDI, and hearing their stories, we were moved and impressed by their efforts and strides – at times, against all odds. Janet, Phalles and Catherine were three of YWCDIs representatives at the workshop, and below, you can read more about their engagement in local clubs.
PHALLES
Phalles is 20 years old and has been involved in the YWCDI-club in Mzuzu for over a year. During this period, she has participated in many of the vocational skill-building activities offered by the club, including jewellery workshops. Making and selling necklaces and earrings can make young female actors more economically independent, and is it is an enjoyable way to interact with other volunteers and the young women that they reach out to in the villages. Phalles says that she has learned a lot about climate change, and is excited to be a part of the movement that is “joining our hands to end the issue of climate change.”
During our final dinner together with the workshop participants in Malawi, Phalles participated in a theatrical representation of the challenges related to interactions between local traditional leaders and young NGO-members with plans of climate adaptation activities in local communities. The comedic performance intended to show us the cultural structures social activists in Malawi are faced with. In order to conduct any kind of activity, the organizations has to seek permission or support from local or regional chiefs. And some of them can be very hard to persuade. But earlier this year, the Mzuzu-club participated in an awareness campaign together with NfYD. Together with community leaders, the local mayors office and government officials, YWCDI and NfYD arranged a “Big Walk” through Muzuzu town, to raise awareness and spread information about the effects of climate change. At the end of the walk, they performed a public lecture and advocated for people to take action with the support of their local political leaders. This way, the YWCDI combines the issues of youth advocacy, representation of women and climate change in one grand message of change and action. In many instances, they succeed in gaining the support of local leadership, and as we will see, this support is of great significance.
Phalles acted in the role as a social activist reaching out to a village chief (Cathy) for "his" support  of a afforestation project. Credit: Stina Lindholm

Phalles acted in the role as a social activist reaching out to a village chief (Cathy) for “his” support  of a afforestation project. Credit: Stina Lindholm

JANET
Janet belongs to a YWCDI-club in Nkhata Bay, north in Malawi. The club provides various activities, including vocational skill courses, aforestation projects and the opening of a village bank. Janet explains that the village bank is very helpful for families that are suddenly faced with unexpected costs, such as funeral rites. Just like the overwhelming majority in Malawi, the population in Nkhata Bay rely heavily on agriculture. In recent times, the rainy seasons has become increasingly unstable, and earlier this year, the northern parts of the country experienced severe droughts. Local families are therefore extremely vulnerable to unforeseen economic demands, but the village bank provides some relief. The local YWCDI-chapters are also heavily involved in adaptation measures, including growing sweet potatoes, a particularly robust kind of crop. The club is also highly involved in the regional and national initiative of banning the practice of child brides, an issue Janet feels strongly about. The practice is under extreme scrutiny from politicians and members of civil society alike, but working against the practice has been an uphill battle. Janet explains that she herself has had to overcome personal obstacles in order to become an active and outspoken member of YWCDI. Now a member for two years, Janet tells us that she has learned a lot from her involvement with the club. “I can stand in front of people and talk with no fear. Our target is to promote girls and empower them so they can gain authority. I hope in these coming years the girls will benefit from the progams and get back to school.”
Janet: "Lets conserve water to have more harvest yield!!!! Credit: Hanne Krystad

Janet: “Lets conserve water to have more harvest yield!!!! Credit: Hanne Krystad

CATHY
Spire and ODW-members and readers of the blog might recognize Cathereen. She has been an active member of YWCDI and NfYD for several years, and visited Norway in 2012. We benefited greatly from Cathys presence during the workshop, as she participated willingly in discussions and theatre peformances. Like Janet, Cathy comes from a village in Nkhata Bay. By means of presentations and theatrical performance, Cathy unveiled how the keepers of ancient traditions in Malawi – local chiefs primarily – can act as a barrier towards the changes NfYD and YWCDI wish to see in their communities. “The chiefs did not allow girls to get educated or participate in development. It was very difficult for a girl like me to stand up and say anything, even attending a workshop like this”, Cathy explained during a discussion. Cathy has been outspoken on the subject in her village, and when NfYD visited her village as a part of their “Back to school”-program, she got involved. Before long, Cathy found herself in the midst of a heartbreaking and extremely challenging situation, when the local YWCDI-club was approached by a young girl from a near-by village. A child of nine years old, the girl had been forced into marriage by a much, much older male relative. This man happened to be a local chief. He made her stay at away from school, and she suffered domestic violence and sexual abuse. Exhausted by the extreme living conditions, the girl eventually ran away. She was put in contact with the YWCDI-club. Initially, Cathy and the club reached out to the disctrict chief council, but they dismissed their request of support against the “husband”. She had no right opposing tradition like this, and they withheld any sanctions towards the man. But with guidance from NfYD, Cathy contacted a women´s shelter, and they advised her to get the girl to a hospital. Cathy brought her to the doctor, and she was subsequently diagnosed HIV positive – a disease the perpetrator knew he had all along. With official statements from the hospital and the shelter, Cathy contacted local policy authorities and pressed charges against the man. The case went to court, and Cathy spoke on behalf of the girl. The judge sided with the girl and sentenced the chief to imprisonment. The girl has now relocated to an aunt in a different village, and according to Cathy, she is doing much better – but she will rely on medicine the rest of her life. When speaking about the girl, Cathy express happiness that they were able to end the abuse, but as anyone would be, she is still filled with sadness knowing of the nightmare the nine year old girl and thousands of others endure in Malawi and elsewhere.
Cathy, "I believe I will not be the same. I will run the world and make a change!" Credit: Stina Lindholm.

Cathy, “I believe I will not be the same. I will run the world and make a change!” Credit: Stina Lindholm.

BREAKING THE DAM
Child marriage is deeply entrenched in Malawi’s society partly because of a belief that a girl should marry as early as possible to maximise her fertility. Half of girls wed before their 18th birthday and nearly one in eight is married by 15. Early marriage not only deprives young female actors of education and opportunities, it also increases the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries. Child brides are also at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence.2 Child marriages is an extremely contested issue, and a broad social movement has put down immense effort to illegalize the practice in Malawi. NfYD and YWCDI has participated in this effort, and earlier this year, after numerous blows such as the court case in Nkhata Bay, the dam finally broke. In February, the parliament voted unanimously for the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, a law banning child marriage, raising the minimum age to 18. This is the first piece of legislation on the issue of child marriage, and is a leap in the right direction. But, as stressed by the Malawian country director of EveryChild Brussels Mughogho, child marriage will never end with legal instruments alone. It is of vital importance to include and educate local chiefs, for as the story Cathy told us exemplifies, they enjoy and exert great social and cultural power that sometimes hinder progress.
Phalles and Augustin sporting YWCDI-tshirts during a group discussion. Credits: Hanne Krystad

Phalles and Augustin sporting YWCDI-tshirts during a group discussion. Credits: Hanne Krystad

Phalles, Janet and Cathy represent the various perspectives and efforts put down by the Young Women Can Do It-initiative, and their backgrounds, motivation and drive is inspiring. They identify as “agents of change”, and as we wish to show, they are hard at work creating lasting change in their communities and countries. The YWCDI-clubs work in multidimensional, dynamic, creative and effective ways. By integrating women´s empowerment within climate change action, YWCDI are able to fulfill the ambitions stated by the UN, NORAD and so forth; namely addressing the interconnections between gender discrimination and agriculture, poverty and climate change. The issues are huge and overwhelming. But as Phalles, Janet and Cathy can testify, positive change is within reach. We are thrilled to have YWCDI it as our partners, and are excited to see where our collaboration takes us.
1 http://nfydmw.org August 19th 2015
2 http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/02/16/uk-malawi-childmarriage-law-idUKKBN0LK1Y920150216 25.08.15
Text written by Hanne Krystad

Leave a Reply