Brave and caring men, faith leaders and chiefs in Traditional Authority (T/A) Tambala in Dedza district are mobilizing their subjects to tame twin problems of suicide and violence targeting girls and women in the area.
Through the Malawi SRHR Alliance, Malawi Human Rights Resources Centre (MHRR) brought new urgency and visibility to the extent of gender based violence (GBV) and suicide cases in the area.
With financial support from Sonke Gender Justice, MHRRC is implementing a five-year program that centers on the youth and harnesses the power of adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in achieving change to harmful practices, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes, including unintended pregnancy.
The other partners in the project are Amref Health Africa, Youth Wave, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (CYECE).
In Dedza, MHRRC is working with the youth, community, traditional and faith leaders in fighting harmful cultural practices that fuel violence and a rise in suicide cases.
During an interface meeting held at T/A Tambala’s Headquarters in December 2021, dozens of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors came forward to share their experience that forced the community to feel ashamed of itself.
Their candid testimonies brought to bare the extent to which men caused suffering to innocent girls and women. Their courage and voice prompted caring men, faith leaders and chiefs to lead a powerful collective activism and a sea-change in awareness.
T/A Tambala said his area has been an epicenter of SGBV and suicide cases until recently when community and faith leaders mobilized their subjects to end the vices.
Tambala stated that suicided cases stemmed from family disagreements and accusations of witchcraft. On the other hand, SGBV was a result of jealousy in marriages or sexual relationships.
“But we are moving towards eliminating these vices. Our partnership with MHRRC is bearing desirable fruits,” he said.
Pastor Omar Wesley Tande said their involvement in the programme has helped them learn and appreciate the role that faith leaders have in shaping norms and practices as well as in changing these when leading to injustices.
Tande admitted that patriarchal interpretation of religious scriptures and dogma have contributed to gender injustice by large magnitude.
“This project has been a big eye opener for us. Previously, we had no knowledge about the role faith leaders can play in eradicating gender violence and suicide in their communities,” he said.
The Holy Quran states that under no circumstances is violence against women encouraged or allowed in Islam.
Actually, there are many examples in Quran and Ahadith that describes the behavior of Muslims towards husband and wife. The relationship should be one of mutual love, respect and kindness.
But as Sheikh Maulana Hajj observed, some faith leaders have, through omission or utter negligence, chosen to ignore this ayah (verse) in their desperate attempt to keep women on short leash.
Hajj stated that it is a ‘great crime to kill or take one’s own life or to abuse women’.
“But because people, including men of God, have distanced themselves away from God, they think they can do anything, including taking their own lives or abusing girls and women. This is wrong and that’s why, through our partnership with MHRRC, we are condemning these practices in our mosques,” said Hajj.
Tambala Area Development Committee (ADC) chairperson Esinta Benjala said the area is registering a steady decline in cases of suicide and GBV since the area rolled out.
Benjala attributed the decline to increased awareness on the rights of women and girls and the sacredness of human life.
“Previously, husbands would not allow their wives to join clubs of any sort, fearing they would be engaging in extramarital affairs. But this isn’t the case today. Most husbands have freed their wives to participate in social and economic livelihood programmes in their societies,” she said.
Probably, this could be a wakeup call that, alongside other invaluable initiatives by the central government, grassroots activists, women’s human rights defenders and survivor advocates are key in eliminating GBV and suicide.
MHRRC Executive Director Emma Kaliya disclosed that grassroots activists reveal the extent of that violence, they collect and shape statistics, document attacks and bring the violence that happens from the shadows into the light. They offer a path to bringing this violation of women’s rights to an end.
Kaliya said they are also working with religious and traditional leaders because of the respect and power they wield in their communities and every domain of public life, stressing that chiefs and the clergy play a powerful role in shaping attitudes, opinions and behaviours.
They can shape social norms and they have the power to promote and support laws and public policies ensuring respect of women’s rights and eliminating suicide in line with faith-based teachings.
Kaliya stressed that creating a structure of change agents, including the faith leaders at the three tiers at national, district and local levels has been a successful approach to influence policy processes and policymaking.
“The main goal of this project is to ensure that adolescent girls and young women from underserved communities are being meaningfully included in all decision-making regarding harmful practices, SGBV and unintended pregnancies. We also want to see young people demanding demand accountability and responsiveness to these vices,” she said.
Kaliya said she was impressed with the progress communities are making in eradicating suicide and violence in the district.