Sitting under a mango tree, the headman of Patete village marvels at a group of girls singing as they walk to a nearby primary school. Earlier, such a scene was not common in the village. Many girls stayed at home, and boys went to school – he changes the tradition, girl by girl.
“It was a difficult task,” says the headman, who hails from Machinga district. “I had to go against some deep-rooted traditions to convince my people to see [that] girls, like boys, need access to education.”
“I had to go against some deep-rooted traditions to convince my people to see [that] girls, like boys, need access to education.”
The fight for girls’ education
For a long time, the headman campaigned in his community for the recognition of the importance of equality between girls and boys.
To support him in his quest to support girls’ education, he was given the opportunity to attend a training session as part of the Spotlight initiative, funded by the European Union. As a pillar of his community, his opinion is important in changing the way men and boys view the role of women and girls.
The training was dedicated to ending sexual and gender-based violence and raising awareness of human rights. He highlighted women’s rights and how they were diminished. “As a community, we take so many things for granted,” Patete says, “like the burden we place on women at home and on our farms.”
Fighting the culture to keep girls in school
“In our culture, even when we come from the field, the woman carries all the farm implements, and the men go home with [their] hands in pockets. At home, the wife has to cook again, and the husband rests. This training gave me a much broader perspective on these issues,” he says.
“It’s something that was somehow socialized in the past that women should do more work. The training reinforced in me my opinion that we are abusing women.’
“At home, the wife cooks again, and the husband rests. The training reinforced my belief that we are abusing women.’
The training sessions strengthened the determination of the village leader of Group Patete to stand up for women’s rights. He addressed community leaders at their forums and highlighted the plight of women and girls and the responsibility of leaders to change how communities perceive these roles to encourage an end to harmful practices.
“It’s not easy to change old ways of working, but we’re making progress,” he says.
A striking example is the fight against underage and early marriages.
“There is no such thing as a petty crime,” he says. “All those who are found married to young girls are committing a crime. This is my position, and everyone in my district knows it.”
He recently annulled the forced marriage of a 17-year-old girl to her 20-year-old boyfriend after it was brought to his attention.
“A lot of people think that if they marry off their daughter after she’s pregnant, that’s a proper punishment,” he says. “On the contrary, this is a big mistake. Girls need a second chance.”
The girl in question, Stella John, is now 20 years old and has returned to school. She is a member of her village’s safe space Spotlight Initiative.
“Many people believe that if a daughter is given in marriage after pregnancy, then this is an appropriate punishment. This is a big mistake.”
“If it wasn’t for the boss’s intervention, I could have been a housewife,” Ms. John says.
In her culture, girls who have undergone initiation rites are considered ready for marriage. Because she rejected the proposal of marriage, she did not like those who maintain this tradition. The safe space became a place of refuge for her, helping her to let go of these criticisms and focus on her goals.
“Being famous is not easy [as] the one who gave up marriage for school, she says. “This is what makes me want to become a doctor.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – Eastern and Southern Africa.
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