By Josephine Chinele, Contributor:
On a very hot Monday afternoon, female students of Dzenje Community Day Secondary School which lies over 30 kilometres away from Mulanje-Blantyre road, are eager to have their ‘girl talk’ session.
They are dressed in deep green skirts and sky blue short sleeved tops (uniform) white socks and black shoes. They are all short hair girls, looking very smart. After driving for such a long distance deep into a remote area, one would not expect the sight of such decently dressed girls.
Upon arrival of a team from the Global Interfaith Alliance (Gaia), the girls are so excited; their warm greetings and faces could tell.
The girls, whose age ranges from 14 to 20 and those from eight other schools are part of Mawa girls’ initiative which Gaia initiated in Malawi in a bid to reduce HIV among adolescent girls and prevent them from falling pregnant but remain in school instead.
A statement issued by Gaia during 2018 World AIDS Day (December 1) indicates that Mawa Girls program aims to help girls create healthy future through empowerment, education and psychosocial support.
It further says the Mawa girls’ initiative is a collaboration which intends to support girls to stay in secondary school and equip them with HIV prevention as well as sexual and reproductive health messages, and a vision for a healthy future.
‘Mawa’ is a Chichewa word which literally means tomorrow, seeks to help girls stay in school, stay healthy and think about goals for their future.
During this particular Monday session, Gaia Youth Friendly Health Services Nurse, Ellen Chisale talked about Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) issues such as Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), HIV, Contraceptives and Post Exposure Prophylaxis.
This session is part of Mawa girls’ initiative, which was launched in partnership with Sentebale, (a charity co-founded by The Duke of Sussex and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) to adapt its successful psychosocial support program for Malawi context through weekly clubs and camps.
“The discussions are mainly done in Chichewa to ensure that the girls are free to talk and ask any questions they may have regarding SRHR,” Mercy Njewa, Mawa girls mentor for Dzenje CDSS, says.
Her main task as a mentor is to act as a role model to the girls and be their counsellor.
“Before this program, we had a lot of school drop outs due to long distances that the students have to cover and also due to pregnancies and early marriages. Every year, at least ten girls dropped out of the school,” Njewa says.
She also admits that it was hard to deal with the problems because initially, traditional leaders and Parents Teachers Association (PTA) were not involved but are now aware of the program.
“The traditional leaders and PTA agreed to have by-laws that penalise any parent whose child has dropped out of school.
“We also have other organisations that support girls with learning materials such as notebooks, school fees and sanitary pads. So if a child drops out, the rule is they have to pay back everything,” she explains, also citing poverty as one of the leading causes of early marriages.
Njewa adds: “The students come to school on an empty stomach, yet they knock off at around 2 or 3 pm. They are supposed to be in school by 7am so you can actually see that they spend a lot of time at school.”
Mawa girls club has 40 girls as members thus far, drawn from forms one and two and are mainly Gaia beneficiaries. These are identified needy and vulnerable students who are getting support such as soap, notebooks, uniforms and school fees (in form of PTA fund which is K4,400 per student per term).
“We intend to expand this and have as many girls as possible in this club. But since the establishment of this club, I’m noticing a change of culture and absenteeism from school has greatly reduced,” she says.
Head teacher for Dzenje CDSS, Harrison Parapandu corroborates, “there is a need to be bold on SRHR issues in order for the students to understand and protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancies.”
One of Mawa girls’ members, Esnart Hadson, says she is more knowledgeable about SRHR issues now than before Mawa girls clubs started.
“Through these sessions, I am able to understand how my body functions. I am also knowledgeable about STI symptoms, prevention and treatment. In addition to that, I am so grateful to Gaia for the support it provides to many needy students of this school… I would like to assure them that this will be put to good use,” she says.
Gaia Projects Coordinator, Annie Sekani says Mawa girls club initiative aims at closing the school drop-out gap in the area.
She says the program was introduced at the beginning of the 2018/ 2019 school year in September 2018 and nine schools are running the clubs.
“Each club has 40 students. Female teachers were trained on the concept of Mawa girls to become mentors. We also trained some community girl representatives who are called Youth Leaders who act as role models to the girls,” Sekani says.
The role models in collaboration with the teacher mentors agree on a day to be having their meetings within a month.
Information from Gaia titled ‘Keeping Youth in School as an HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention strategy’ reveals that the organisation came up with this initiative after noticing that in Malawi and globally, adolescent girls and young women are at much higher risk of acquiring HIV than their male peers.
It was noticed from within villages that girls aged between 15 and 19 were four times more likely than male peers to test HIV positive.
“There are many reasons for this trend, including cultural practices like early marriage, as well as poverty, which drives transactional sex and the cycle of transmission. Keeping girls in school is a proven protective factor against HIV infection, as well as early marriage, pregnancy and other health risk behaviours, including age-disparate relationships and transactional sex,” reads the information in part.
In one of its information booklets of 2014, UNAIDS observes that keeping girls in school is a proven protective factor against HIV noting that when girls stay in school, they have lower rates of early marriage, pregnancy and HIV.
Mawa girls’ club members for Dzenje CDSS are determined to complete their education and are always curious to know more about SRHR issues and they always look forward to Mondays to have their sessions.