In their respective villages, Cecelia Muliya and Esitere Chabwera are regarded as cultural leaders.
The two have worked in girls’ initiation camps for decades, tasked with the role of introducing young girls to womanhood.
Upon reaching puberty, more than half of all Malawian girls participate in some form of initiation ceremony, ranging in length from days to an entire month. Sent away to rural camps, this traditional rite-of-passage is meant to teach girls to take care of themselves, to dress like a woman and to show respect to elders.
It’s also during initiation ceremonies that many girls first learn about sex.
“They are taught how to handle a man so that the man should enjoy sex,” says Chabwera. Through sex simulation and dance, the girls are encouraged to practice pleasing men sexually. Many partake in kusasa fumbi, a custom that normally entails having sex with a chosen male—or sometimes several—from the village.
Practices like kusasa fumbi have been directly linked to the spread of HIV and AIDS, and have been categorically denounced by human rights organizations.
But instead of attempting to eradicate initiation ceremonies, one non-governmental organization asks women like Muliya and Chabwera for their input in order to make the traditional practice safer.
Janet Mwangomba of the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM) is devoted to helping villages in Malawi create their own local ways of curbing the spread of HIV, empowering women and deterring gender-based violence. Rather than a top-down approach, the Thyolo-based pilot project gives community members the opportunity to make their own informed decisions.
Equipped with the means to discuss the impact of initiation practices with other counsellors from surrounding villages, many leaders like Muliya and Chabwera choose to become agents of change within their communities.
“We have still maintained the initiation ceremonies, but we have strongly discouraged girls from having sexual intercourse soon after the initiation,” says Muliya. “We are no longer forcing the girls into sex as it was in the past.”
Now, Muliya and Chabwera have incorporated AIDS awareness into their ceremonies and girls in some of the project’s 69 villages are also taught to be assertive rather than submissive.
“What we have done instead is encourage the girls to work hard in their education,” Muliya says. “We also advise those who wish to have sex to ask their partners to have HIV testing before they engage in sexual intercourse.”
Though Chabwera and Muliya have chosen to adapt the focus of girls’ initiation, their approach is still a rare minority in Malawi.
However, in villages where significant changes have come from within the community, young girls are already seeing a difference. “It’s valuable because we can see the change at a personal, household and community level,” Mwangomba says.
“Initiation still plays a crucial role passing on the knowledge of our ancestors and imparting skills,” Chabwera says.
And for a lucky few, these ceremonies will now include knowledge and skills for empowerment.