Tag Archives: Gender

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.

Secret Women

In Chichewa, the widely-spoken language of southern Malawi, being pregnant or “kunkhala ndi pakati” translates to being in the middle of life and death.  For many pregnant Malawian women, however, death comes much sooner.

As the African country with the second highest maternal mortality ratio, Malawi is struggling to eradicate a crisis that in 2006 claimed the lives of would-be mothers at a rate of 807 deaths per 100,000 live births.  And while 2006 figures showed an improvement on those of 2004 – 984 deaths per 100,000 live births – the 2010 Malawi Millennium Development Goals Report has already projected that Malawi will not achieve the targets of the fifth MDG to improve maternal health by 2015.

Contributing factors identified in the 2005 Ministry of Health (MoH) “Road Map for Accelerating the Reduction of Maternal and Neonatal Mortality and Morbidity in Malawi” include shortage of staff and weak human resource management, limited availability and utilisation of quality maternal health care services, and weak procurement and logistics systems for drugs, supplies and equipment.  Underlying such problems of infrastructure and resources, the report reads, are harmful social and cultural beliefs and practices.

Naswit Chitalo of Namila Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlilima in Chikhwawa District is easily able to recall a time when “most pregnant women were dying from pregnancy complications” because of social and cultural beliefs, which include the belief that the firstborn child should be delivered by a traditional birth attendant (TBA) in the home as opposed to a health facility.

“I actually know of three women we lost in 2009 because they sought the services of elderly women from the village instead of rushing to the hospital,” said Chitalo, adding that TBAs would use herbs to make pregnant women “feel so confident about the outcome of their pregnancy” that professional maternal health care would be neglected altogether.

According to Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN) Executive Director Martha Kwataine, these kinds of social and cultural beliefs surrounding TBAs have done more harm than good when it comes to maternal mortality in Malawi.

“There have been several researches whose results have shown that traditional birth attendants have made cases on maternal death high because they are not properly equipped,” said Kwataine.  “We tried to train them so that they should handle referral cases but they did not comply.”

President Joyce Banda has also added her voice to the case against TBAs; on June 18, after laying a foundation stone for a maternity holding shelter at Mulanje Hospital, the first of 130 holding shelters pledged as part of the Presidential Initiative on Safe Motherhood launched in April, Banda told TBAs to stop offering delivery services to expectant women.

“Traditional birth attendants must stop giving delivery services,” she said at the function, adding that “traditional birth attendants can have a good role to play… because they are experienced they can be referral point.”

News of the ban on TBAs has been met with both controversy and commendation throughout the country.  But to women like Chitalo, the rationale behind the ban is not news at all; as one of the T/As where the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (CAVWC) has been working to realize the MoH Road Map objective of improving obstetric care, a new, “good role” for TBAs is already one of Mlilima’s best kept secrets.

Former traditional birth attendant Dalia Issa stands with her husband outside of their Namila Village home. In 2010, with training from the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children, Issa stopped offering village-based delivery services and took on a new role as a Secret Woman. Photo submitted.

In 2010, CAVWC identified two women in each village of T/A Mlilima and T/A Kasisi to be “Secret Women.”  The women, many of whom had been working as TBAs, attended three days of training on maternal health using a standardized MoH handbook.

According to CAVWC Project Officer Talimba Bandawe, women like Chitalo were trained to take on four main roles and responsibilities: referring pregnant women to antenatal facilities by carrying out door-to-door campaigns; educating women on family planning; collaborating with Village Health Committees to form Community Safe Motherhood Task Forces and conduct awareness-raising community meetings; and recording how many pregnant women deliver in the community or in a health facility.

“We depend on these Secret Women because they have been trained; they can convince a woman on the importance of delivery at a health facility with a skilled attendant, because in the rural areas they are used to having TBAs,” said Bandawe.  “We’re trying to change that mindset – that anything could happen with a TBA so it’s better to deliver at a health facility.”

Bandawe said the women are called “Secret Women” because of the social and cultural beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy in Malawi.

“When you talk about traditions and beliefs, the pregnant woman is vulnerable,” she said, adding that traditional beliefs in witchcraft scare some women off of sharing how many months they are into their pregnancy.

“The concept of Secret Women is based on that whatever you talk about with a Secret Woman should be kept confidential,” she continued.  “Whatever issues that you discuss, the Secret Woman is not expected to go and disclose that anywhere because some of the things can be really private.”

According to Esnart Dzoma, who has been volunteering as a Secret Woman in Namila Village for two years, “the most important thing is confidentiality.”

“If I begin to shout that ‘so and so sought this help from me’ they will inform each other, and we will have the health problems that used to compound issues such as pregnancy again,” said Dzoma.  “I have an obligation to help these women with compassion, and without malice… the secret to being an effective Secret Woman is to be open-minded.”

Based on principles of compassion and confidentiality, Bandawe said the Secret Women project has helped to address some of the harmful social and cultural beliefs and practices, “especially through the door-to-door campaigns” as pregnant women have been comforted by and more likely to accept confidential counselling.

A bicycle ambulance donated by the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children being used in Namila Village. Photo submitted.

“The Secret Women were really successful in that a number of women were referred to the hospital,” she said, adding that other Road Map interventions such as the provision of bicycle ambulances and village bylaws enforcing fines for births that take place outside of a health facility have also contributed to the success of the initiative.

The data collected by the Secret Women also speaks to their success; in 2009, when CAVWC was working to reach out to practicing TBAs and provide safe-birthing training and equipment, approximately 30 percent of pregnant women in the two T/As were reportedly giving birth at a health facility.  In 2012, the Secret Women are reporting that 54 percent of pregnant women are now giving birth at a health facility.

But despite their success, Bandawe said that the new role for TBAs has not been implemented without resistance.

“Some women still resist the counseling of the Secret Women, and sometimes even the husband can be a challenge,” she said.

“There are some materials that the hospital recommends that you should have when you go to the hospital – a plastic paper, a razor blade and a basin.  Some of the husbands don’t welcome this idea, so (the Secret Women) have a negative reception from some of the families.”

For their part, Bandawe said that CAVWC will “revive the Secret Women” by holding refresher training courses at the end of June.

“It is really important to have these sorts of people in the communities, mainly in the rural areas where literacy levels are low,” she said.

“Maybe after there has been a lot of sensitization, when everyone even in the rural communities is aware of the health benefits of delivering at the hospital and when we have managed to reduce the maternal mortality ratio, that’s when we can do without the Secret Women.  But right now, they still have a major role to play.”

***

With files from Richard Chirombo and Madalitso Musa

When beggars should be choosers – How the promise of remuneration is heading off freedom of movement and free choice of employment in Malawi

Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.

At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it.  And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.

According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls.  Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.

“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said.  “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas?  What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”

No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.

On May 16 Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre to discuss where and why human trafficking occurs in Malawi. Photo by Karissa Gall.

To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16.  Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.

During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”

“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said.  “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”

Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”

Norwegian Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman. Photo by Karen Msiska.

“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said.  “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.

“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued.  “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.

“A new cabinet means that new people are in place.  We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”

In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.”  She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.

***

Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”

“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination.  In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.

“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders.  Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”

The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.

“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”

While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.

“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues.  “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”

According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”

In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.

***

Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234.  YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.

***

With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska

Vanessa Nsona

Driving change in Malawi – Signposts and speed bumps on the road to gender equality

With two hands gripping the steering wheel and the right turn signal flashing, 21-year-old Vanessa Nsona’s concentration does not waver when a minibus caller passing by her driver seat window lets out a shrill catcall – she is about to complete her third driving lesson and she’s part of an increasing number of Malawian women who are doing so.

According to Precious Kumbatila, the director of Blantyre’s Apule Driving School,  female students in Malawi have been enrolling at increasingly higher numbers over recent years.

“When we opened in 2003, most of our students were male,” said Kumbatila.  “Very few women came in.

“It was in 2004 when we had the second government that women started learning to drive,” he said.  “At that time there were a lot of vehicles coming into the country; a lot of families were buying cars, and as a result, men started wanting their wives and their girl children to learn how to drive.”

Although Kumbatila said the poorly performing economy adversely affected enrolment numbers for both male and female students in 2011, he added that overall, the gender gap is narrowing.  In 2008, 163 female students registered for driving lessons at Apule compared to 301 male students.  In 2011, 190 female students registered for lessons compared to 282 male students.

For Nelly Kalunga, a single mother working full-time and currently taking driving lessons at Apule, learning to drive is a “privilege” and will mean a new skill set, new opportunities and economic empowerment.

“Nowadays, women are given chances to do what men do,” Kalunga said.  “I decided to start driving because I want to be like the men who are driving.

“If I have a driving license, that means I can do any work that men can do, I’ll have better chances of winning other jobs,” she said.  “Myself, I want try to be like the men who work in peacekeeping.”

Kalunga said the jobs that she will be qualified for once she learns how to drive are higher paying and that “the more you learn, the more you can get good things.”

“We used to think that driving was only for men and not for women, but nowadays we’ve seen that even women can drive,” she said.  “I think we can be 50/50 with men if most women can drive.”

However, according to Kumbatila, still “very few women can come and pay for lessons on their own” like Kalunga.

At Apule, registration for the 40 required driving lessons costs MK45,000 (CAD180).  With the additional costs of the MK4,000 (CAD16) provisionary license, booking a road test for MK4,000 and MK8,000 (CAD32) for the full license if you pass, learning to drive costs over MK60,000 (CAD240) in total.

“It’s the men that pay for the women,” said Kumbatila.  “Either their husbands, their boyfriends or workmates.  They are trying to push the women to learn how to drive so that they can do their chores on their own.”

Nancy Nyirende is one such woman.  A housewife and stay-at-home mother, Nyirende began taking driving lessons at Apule in March after her husband, who has been driving since 2001, decided to register her and pay for her.

“We have two cars now so he wanted me to escort my sons to school,” said Nyirende, adding that none of her female friends drive “because they are poor.”

Despite these roadblocks to closing the gender gap between male and female drivers, Kumbatila said he believes the slowly but surely increasing number of female drivers is steering Malawi in the right direction.

“It is imperative that women drive because driving lifts people’s lives,” he said.  “In my mother’s day she was just at home for us, cooking at home.  But nowadays [women] can have opportunities.  If a woman can improve herself by learning to drive she can get the same kind of opportunities as men.  If more women drive, it will empower this country.”

***

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), Malawi was ranked 60 out of 102 countries in the 2009 SIGI and ranked 38 out of 86 in the 2012 SIGI.

In 2011, the Human Development Index for Malawi was 0.400, placing the country at 171 out of 187 countries.  For the Gender Inequality Index Malawi received a score of 0.594, placing the country at 120 out of 146 countries with data.  Also in 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked Malawi 65 out of 135 countries in its 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, with a score of 0.6850 where 0 represents inequality and 1 represents equality.

Witchcraft forum focuses on gendered solutions

On May 19, the International Institute of Journalism and JHR hosted a community dialogue on the issue of witch craft allegations in Northern Ghana. Twenty IIJ students, members of the Ministry of Women and Children, local media outlets and NGOs debated the role of the media concerning allegations of witchcraft in the North.

Ghana’s Upper East and Northern regions are home to seven witch camps – more than any other region. The largest camp, Gambaga, was established over a century ago and is now home to 83 women and over 45 dependent children and grandchildren.

As guests began their presentations, the bottom line became clear: accusations of witchcraft are based on gender.

“The debate is beyond whether there are witches or not. The issue is that witchcraft allegations have become a feminized issue,” said I.P.S. Zakaria, of the Department of Women and Children.

Women, often elderly and widowed, are accused for misfortunes in their villages, leading to lynching or banishment to camps far from their communities. The banishment of these women directly affects their access to hygienic facilities, education and economic independence. For many women, discrimination and the emotional stigma attached to being accused limit their ability to speak out against the issue.

“When a woman is 30, she will fight the allegations with all her power,” explained Fati Al-Hassan, president of the Anti-Witchcraft Allegations Campaign Coalition (AWACC). “But when she gets into her 50s and 60s, she begins to accept these powers and confess to these allegations.”

Zakaria finds many women are unable to act independently from their husbands, keeping them vulnerable to allegations. Many widows are accused of witchcraft so they are not entitled to their husband’s inheritance.

“If it looks like you killed someone with witchcraft, you are not entitled to the use of the property,” explained Al-Hassan.

She is no stranger to allegations, having been accused of being a witch herself.

“I love my powers,” she said. “I love the assumption that people have that I have these powers, because it gives me motivation to do the work that I do.”

Allegations follow similar trends, says Ken Addae of AWACC. Working with members of the witch camps since 2000, he has found allegations often occur in areas with high poverty levels and low education. The largest indicator is the structure of social and cultural systems that make women vulnerable, said Addae.

However, Al-Hassan finds this no reason for justify the accusations.

“Culture is dynamic,” she said. “We can’t cling to a culture and justify our actions when we abuse someone.”

Journalist Francis Npong echoed Al-Hassan’s concerns, targeting the media as those most responsible for influencing public opinion on the issues.

“The world is changing,” said Npong. “The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining …This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.”

Panelists encouraged journalists to make their messages accessible to communities most likely to banish women for witchcraft. Addae suggested creatively engaging communities with traditional Dogon drum and drama troops to shift public opinion.

Addressing the crowded room of students, panelists encouraged the audience to be assertive and balanced with their reporting. They also emphasized the importance of minimizing harm.

A journalist herself, Al-Hassan envisions the media as the public face of the fight for human rights awareness.

“When people have rights, they must be made to see that they are working for them,” she explained.

The forum topic was chosen by the students themselves who have shown an interest in addressing and educating themselves on issues specific to their region.

Talking to the students, the impact of the forum is obvious.

“I have learned so much on how to report gender issues and women’s rights,” said Yakubu Gafaru, the JHR vice-president. “It was interesting to see the majority of the camps are within our region. Why not down south? It means there is something behind it, something we need to address.”

Others found the chance to work with prominent female journalists inspiring.

“We need more female role models like Madam Fati [Al-Hassan],” explained Yahaya Niamatu. “I admire the courage she has. I want to be just like her.”

Repatriating Ghana’s “Witches”

Ghanaian witch camps are a cultural phenomenon I have yet to fully experience and understand. Although I have read much about them and spoken to some people affected by accusations of witchcraft, I can only conjure a vague image of what it must be like to be banished from one’s village to live in poverty and severe segregation.

Witch camps are mainly located in the northern regions of the country, where belief in witches and the supernatural is generally much stronger than among the more cosmopolitan, urban areas along the coast.

All it takes is one accusation from a disgruntled, superstitious, or envious neighbour or relative to tarnish a reputation and drive out even the most well-respected women from a community.

Forced Out

These women, who typically leave their homes with no possessions, tend to gather together in camps where they eke out a living any way they can. The small economic and social communities they form become the infamous “witch camps” where they remain disempowered, and embody the gender disparity in Ghana.

“Anybody could be a victim,” says Hajia Boya Hawa Gariba, the deputy minister of Women and Children’s Affairs.

That’s why the Ministry is seeking to peacefully disband all of Ghana’s six witch camps over the next three years, she said, speaking with me in a phone interview that aired on Pravda Radio.

The Ministry has recently commissioned a task force involving the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the domestic violence unit of the Ghana Police Service (GPS), the Department of Social Welfare, and the NGOs Action Aid Ghana and the Presby GO HOME Project, she said.

The goal is to repatriate and reintegrate the ostracized “witches” back to their homes and into society. Gariba says the root cause of banishment of witches is cultural beliefs “that have no place in society.”

Open Arms

In order for the women to return safely to their homes, the task force will be educating their communities on basic human rights, the law, and domestic violence. Educators have already been taking the families to the witch camps to show them how the women are living, and discussing the rationality of the beliefs.

For example, Gariba explains, accused witches are made to drink a concoction that is said to take away their power before they are banished. She argues it is against a person’s human rights to make them consume a questionable, and potentially harmful, substance against their will.

Despite consuming the drink, the women are still forced to leave, which makes no sense, according to Gariba, since the witch’s powers are supposed to be neutralized.

Educating communities has been making some gains in the reintegration process, and Gariba says the women’s security is the ministry’s primary concern. She says they also intend to make the women comfortable enough in the camps so that they do not die from exposure, but not enough so that they will not want to go back home.

“These people are human beings. There’s no point in leaving them there.”

Understanding the link between gender and climate change

A common sight in Malawi: Young girls carry heavy loads of firewood. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

When I met 16-year-old Chikondi Phiri, she was struggling to lift a weighty load of firewood on top of her head. I offered her a helping hand, and initiated a conversation about why she was carrying the wood in the first place.

“It’s for my family,” she said proudly.

I could hardly hide the perplexity on my face. Chikondi’s slender frame and youthful appearance had me questioning what sort of family would make such a slight girl perform such a laborious mission?

Sweat poured from Chikondi’s brow as we attempted to lift a heavy bunch of branches in scorching heat, and when the task was completed, she walked off with the balance of a high-wire artist, and said, “See you”.

In Malawi, I see girls like Chikondi all the time. They’re usually either collecting water from a polluted river or carrying wood with babies bouncing on their backs.

According to the United Nations, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours every year collecting water and up to 9 hours a day collecting firewood. Not only do the latter play a huge role in contributing to the 41 million girls’ worldwide not attending school; but also it is one of the many reasons why African women will likely be hardest hit by the impact of climate change.

My interest in understanding the link between gender and climate change in Malawi took me from Lilongwe to Kasungu, a northern rural town, where rainfalls have become increasingly far apart. In 2002, over 100 residents died in a famine brought on by drought, and the community has been picking up the pieces ever since.

On a visit to Nkhamenya Girls Secondary School,  I spoke to a group of students about their daily “female” chores and what they knew about climate change. Many said the temperatures continued to drop over the years, forcing more girls out in search of wood to heat up their homes. Others said they knew children who had died due to smoke inhalation. In fact, worldwide, pollution in homes caused by burning wood kills about two million women and children a year.

Sitting there, listening to these stories, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when one girl asked me, “What is causing this climate change?”

I took a second to gather my thoughts before saying,

“Well, climate change is caused by human action, more specifically, the burning of fossil fuels which contribute to global warming – the heating of the Earth’s temperature.”

They just stared blankly. I knew I had to define it on more simple terms.

“You know those big cars that people drive here in Malawi?” I said, “Those cars burn poisonous gases which make the Earth hotter. You know those big factories with black smoke coming out of them? It’s the same thing.”

I further expanded on the greenhouse effect, and they seemed to get it. But trying to define climate change to Malawian school girls was like trying to paint a picture of hyper-industrialization in a country where vast, barren landscapes and an indigenous way of life are the norm.

Climate change is a condition not of Malawi’s creation – less than 0.1 metric tons per capita of carbon emissions, while Canada contributes 16.3 metric tons. Yet there are NGO’s working in Malawi who are promoting an idea that locals are somehow responsible. They implement projects to plants trees, and raise awareness about the issue. But where are the solutions?

The NGO focus on climate change in developing countries should not be on deflecting the problem, but rather figuring out ways for locals to cope with the change.  Farmers will benefit more from learning to adapt to the temperamental weather, while girls would benefit from a cleaner energy source which would not involve collecting firewood.

As I left the school, I realized the weight and the importance of my visit.

To see a different perspective is the very reason we travel, we explore, and meet people like Chikondi who inspire us to comprehend a new outlook of the places we come from and the things we do.

A Silent Shout: Marital Abuse in Ghana

Breaking the silence is the greatest hurdle to ending marital abuse.

Flashy, kitsch and heinously dubbed – soap operas are the window of entertaining escape from the day to day in Ghana. In an episode I witnessed last week, our heroine was trapped by fate in a loveless marriage, unable to bear any children of her own. Raped by her husband and ostracized by her family, she is too afraid to admit to misdeeds in her past that made her barren. Would she go to jail? Would she ever escape the clutches of her husband? Before any questions could be answered, the power went out.

I had my quota of full body gasps and furrowed brows for the day and got up to leave. Halting my exit, my friend Wasila quickly explained that while the details might be far-fetched, the theme is a reality for many women in Ghana. She believes that a woman’s ability to negotiate safe sex in a marriage can be hard to come by. People may be willing to talk about it as it happens on TV, but few bring it up personally.

“When I was growing up, there were many instances where a woman, often below 16, was given to a man,” says Saratu Mahama, programme director for the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Tamale. “At night, when a man was holding her, the woman would cry out loud and no one would come closer because they already knew what was happening. Nobody will talk about it. There are still girls being betrothed against their will today.”

For many victims of marital rape, Mahama says, “the moment you are married, your body becomes the property of the man. He can use it, as and when he likes.”

In 2007, Ghana introduced the Domestic Violence Act, a bill meant to protect the rights of those most marginalized by abuse in the household. However, Mahama explained that public opposition and a desire to speed up the passing of the bill left a controversial clause from the Ghanaian Criminal Code of 1960 unchanged. The clause states that the act of marriage is grounds for consent. If a spouse refuses to consent to sex and a rape occurs, in the eyes of this particular clause, consent was already given, voiding the case against the accuser.

Inspector Lawrence Adombiri, Metro Coordinator for Tamale’s Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit, says that in a year he has never seen a case of marital rape brought to their office. “It is a silent issue,” he says.

Even without the specific mention of marital rape in the Domestic Violence Act, many cases fail to even reach the courts. Societal pressure and threats directed at the victim deter many of these cases from seeing redress.  Adombiri believes that the community must support the process of the victim before the laws can react accordingly.

Mahama echoes his concern, attributing the lack of reported cases to stigma attached to women in the domestic setting.

“[Society] feels that a woman should bear it, especially when it has to do with sex,” she says. “All other things can be mentioned, but not sex.”

An absence of women’s shelters, the cost of obtaining a doctor’s report confirming instances of rape and the bureaucratic nature of police follow ups to cases were other issues Mahama described that deter women from vocalizing cases of marital rape.

“Most women do not have money to feed themselves, let alone pay for such medical bills. Because of the fee, they are deterred and the cases go unreported or are not followed up,” argues Mahama.

While soap operas may see a happy resolve before the credits roll, many women fear to bring their cases to light. Talking to Mahama and Adombiri, it becomes clear that the issues of marital rape extend beyond the courts to underlying issues of patriarchy and discrimination reflected in Ghana’s traditional domestic structure.

In a report by ActionAid, one woman details her experiences being given to her sister’s brother-in-law at an early age. “I reluctantly went into the room because I was tired of sleeping outside. I was then about fourteen. He forced me to have sex with him.”

Overpowered by her husband and ignored by her family, the recurrent rapes gave way to three children, and left her HIV positive. “I should have fought harder,” she says. Her struggle fell on deaf ears, being told that abuses such as these “are what all women go through”.

Abdallah Abubakari, programme manager of ActionAid, in Northern Ghana, acknowledges that women’s abilities to negotiate terms within the household are affected by structures of patriarchy. He advocates that women must be given more opportunities to express leadership in the household.

“Where women are empowered, the men get awareness,” says Mahama. “They should appreciate the situation of the woman, and there can be change. But when you keep silent but keep the law in place, it still won’t work.”

How to make a comeback in Tamale

As we approached her small dress shop housed in a shed by the roadside, Fadila stood tall in her stunning dress and headscarf and welcomed us warmly in Dagbani.   Her attempts to help me reply in the local dialect were met with giggles all around from the young women sitting at her sewing machines.   Not all young women in Tamale have reason to carry the easy smiles they do.

There are many organizations here trying to empower women to earn their own incomes.  The dusty Northern town of Tamale is often referred to as the NGO capital of Ghana, a West African country known for attracting large sums of foreign aid.   Walk down any street of this regional capital and you will be bombarded by signs – UNICEF and NORSAAC, WFP and GIGDEV.  You have  now entered a world of endless development organization acronyms.   Walk down any street, though, and there are still signs of poverty at every turn.  It makes one question what these organizations really accomplish in this, one of the most impoverished regions in Ghana.

“Have you been to Kayayei before?” we asked Fadila behind a closed door away from her colleagues.

“Yes,” she answered calmly.

A glaring indication of this poverty are the droves of Kayayoo – Northern girls who escape scarce employment opportunities by migrating to the larger cities in the South to work as head porters.  In the capital city of Accra they weave in and out of traffic, artfully carrying heavy trays on their heads selling whatever products or produce people will buy.

Looking back, Fadila said nothing had prepared her, a 20-year-old girl from the rural community of Kakpayili, for the living conditions she would face over 600 kilometres away in Accra.  She described sleeping more than 20 girls to a room where the landlord had absolute power to squeeze as many girls as he wanted inside.  She was making a maximum of 5 to 10 Ghanaian Cedis a day ($3-$6 CAD), but sometimes nothing. Her dreams of saving enough money to buy goods to bring to her marital home were not being realized.  Her family didn’t even know she was there –  she was too ashamed to tell them she was working as a Kayeyei.

The girls she lived with were desperate.   Fadila’s tone became stern.  “It would sometimes lead them to do things that they didn’t intend to do…because you want to survive, in the night, you would definitely make yourself available to any man who wants to achieve his aim and give you some money, so that the following morning, you can get food to eat.”

It has been well documented that many of the girls end up living in unsanitary conditions and are often subject to physical and sexual abuse.  The Kayeyei migration phenomenon is the subject of much talk in Ghana, and these  young women have become a symbol of the socio-economic gap between the North and South.   Despite programs like the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) introduced two years ago, experts say the government is not moving fast enough to improve the lives of those in the three northern regions of the country.

Fadila decided to return North and come home.  “I came because I knew I couldn’t sustain myself on that kind of income.  So I came to learn a trade which I believe can sustain me,” she said.

She managed to get herself enrolled into the Ghana Young Artisans Movement, an NGO run by locals and funded by international institutions. GYAM recruits underprivileged youth and teaches them how to sow, die cloth or some other skill in order to provide them with a form of sustainable income, and helps them set up shops.  Fadila said she thinks the government should fund more programs like this.

“Trying to compare the past and now, now is far far better,” she said, adding she has achieved financial stability and is able to save money like she never could before.   She  said getting accepted into the Tamale-based NGO program changed her life.

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra

Fadila did not accept the fate of a kayeyei in the streets of Accra

From culprits to catalysts: Girls’ initiation in Malawi

Esitere Chabwera uses girls' initiation ceremonies to encourage young women to practice safe sex

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.