Tag Archives: Witchcraft

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

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.”

The Perils of Witchcraft

The cover of national newspaper The Daily Times after four siblings committed suicide in Blantyre, Malawi.

It’s been called a macabre mass suicide, a bizarre religious ritual, and hell on earth.

Last week, the suicides of four and attempted suicide of another, added a new dimension to Malawi’s already complicated religious landscape.

According to police, it was a belief in witchcraft that led to the five siblings throwing themselves into a blazing fire in Ndirande, Blantyre’s most populous township.

Lamace Manda, 31, and his sisters, Etta, 27, and Annie, 16, died on the spot, while Petro, 25, was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital with severe injuries. He died several days later. The last sister, 19-year-old Maria, was rescued by horrified onlookers and has now pleaded guilty to attempted suicide at police headquarters.

Some local reports have suggested the siblings were being taught witchcraft by their parents, while others have quoted the parents saying they had been physically and sexually abused by their children.

Others have carried reports the children acted on the advice of preaching that encouraged suicidal tendencies from a local church, the Ndirande Lunch Hour Fellowship, which it has since denied.

According to a UNICEF report from April 2010, “Children Accused of Witchcraft”, Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in West and Central Africa, has seen an increasing number of children accused of practising witchcraft, which often leads to their abuse and abandonment.

“Whereas in the past, elderly people, particularly women, were accused, these days the number of children accused of witchcraft is increasing,” the report reads. “The frequent accusations are the direct consequence of a generalized climate of ‘spiritual insecurity.'”

Despite no available numbers from Malawi, the report cites unofficial estimates from a widespread study. Examples include Limpopo Province in South Africa, where 389 people were allegedly killed between 1985 and 1995 and another 600 killed by lynching between 1996 and 2001. The report also cites northern Ghana, where women accused and banished to “witch villages” are forced to live in dehumanizing conditions.

While the numbers in Malawi are unclear, reports of such cases are also prevalent.

The Malawi Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of the existing Witchcraft Act. Inherited through colonial rule in 1911, the current act presumes that witchcraft does not exist, but also makes it an offence for any person to represent themselves as a wizard or witch and aims to protect those against “trial by ordeal.”

Expected to be complete by the end of this year, the review will then be submitted to parliament for consideration to establish a new act.

Sophie Nyirongo, Civic Education and Public Relations Officer for the commission says they are responding to “many incidents related to witchcraft allegations,” which she says often result in mob justice, where victims are stigmatized, cast out or even lynched.

Although Nyirongo could not comment on the results of public submissions until the commission’s report is finalized, she says “the response from the public has been overwhelming,” and has ranged from claims that witchcraft does not exist, to accusations that the act is a breach of constitutional freedoms of conscience and beliefs.

Malawi is a God-fearing nation with a secular constitution. The tragedy in Ndirande is yet another indication of how that paradox plays out for its people.