International Perspective: Uncovering the impact of cultural initiation ceremonies in Malawi
She was recently in Malawi for six weeks working on behalf of Link Community Development doing research on gender and education, with a focus on primary-level education. In her week five blog she decribes the effect of initiatiation ceremonies on female education in Malawi.
I have found this week’s blog very difficult to write, mainly because I have found the focus of this week extremely hard to comprehend. Before coming to Malawi I had read various research papers that uncovered snippets of the dark truth of what has become termed ‘gender-based violence’, but this week I have been forced to face the issue first hand.
On Thursday, during a school visit, I was conducting a focus group discussion with a group of girl learners. The 7 pupils in front of me were from Standards 5, 6 and 7 and were between the ages of 10 and 16. The school was in the worst condition I have seen yet – the classrooms were made from local materials – logs, sticks and mud, there were no chairs or tables in the classrooms, and the children were forced to sit on the mud floors of each room.
Before speaking to the girls I talked with members of the Mother Group, PTA and School Management Committee and heard from various parents that poverty is a major challenge in that community. The mothers told me they struggled to provide basic necessities for their children, such as food and soap. Despite their willingness and enthusiasm to fulfil the role they had been given at the school – to support and encourage girl learners – they explained their feeling of helplessness due to having such limited capacity to support the learners who really need their help. One mother told me, “All we can do is give advice and instruction…this alone is not enough”.
The 7 girls before me reiterated the struggles they faced due to the scale of poverty in which they are living. They told me they feel hungry at school and that they often go all day with no food, having just one meal a day each evening, as well as explaining that having no soap is particularly problematic when they are on their period because it means they have no means of washing properly. But then came the answer I had somewhere expected to hear but to this point had managed to remain blissfully ignorant of. I asked the girls what the biggest challenge is that they are facing in their community and one girl immediately said, “child abuse”. Initially I was shocked at how bluntly she had stated her response. When I asked her what she meant, she replied “fighting and rape”. My shock turned to a state of complete emotionless. I reluctantly asked her if she knew anyone who had suffered what she was talking about, to which she meekly nodded her head and said, “All of us”. I wrote down what she had told me almost robotically, feeling nothing – I didn’t want these girls to know what I was really thinking, and to be honest I’m not sure I really knew myself.
It was the same story with the boy learners. When I asked why girls left school, among several responses one boy replied, “rape”. When I asked if he knew anyone who had left school because of this reason he quietly nodded his head. The teachers weren’t so forthcoming, and immediately denied the existence of such abuse. One teacher even said, “It doesn’t concern us…it is happening outside of the school”. I left the school feeling nothing – I couldn’t comprehend what I had been told. I kept going over the conversations in my head as a way of checking, wishfully hoping, I had horribly misinterpreted the whole thing.
Since being at the school I have spoken to the Gender Focal Point Officer at the Ministry of Education in Lilongwe and the District Community Development Officer (DCDO) in Dedza and the issue of abuse has been a prominent part of both discussions. Both raised the concern that cultural beliefs and practices are one of the main sources of violence, as well as being a by-product of extreme poverty. Additionally, both voiced concerns that such beliefs and practices are a major barrier to girls’ participation in education. I was told about the initiation ceremonies of the three tribes that exist in Dedza – Chewa, Ngoni and Yao – and, although they vary in content and intensity, they each have similar core components. For girls, they are initiated when they reach puberty, which can be as young as 12, where they are taken aside and taught about adulthood – the roles, responsibilities and expectations of women in society, as well as often having a sexual component, whereby girls are taught how to please a man and are encouraged to practice sex with any man and often are taken advantage of by men in the community.
The initiation ceremonies consolidate the cultural notion that women hold an inferior position to men in society. Girls are taught to be responsive to the needs of their male counterparts, reinforcing the belief that men are more powerful within society, which consequently is believed to increase the likelihood of violence and exploitation against women and girls. This is believed to be heightened in poorer areas – the National Gender Focal Point Officer told me she believes poverty exacerbates gender-based violence as poverty disempowers people and the worry is that men who feel disempowered look for ways to feel empowered – one of the ways they do this is to exploit weaker people, who are unavoidably the women and children.
I was told that the initiation ceremonies are seen to mark the transition from girl to woman, and they can have a significant impact on the mind-sets of young girls. The DCDO in Dedza told me she thinks the initiation ceremonies have a seriously detrimental effect on education because often, once going through the initiation process, girls no longer value its importance. In Malawi, gender roles are clearly defined in all aspects of society – young girls are expected to fulfil household chores and to care for younger children from a very young age, whereas boys are left to play with their peers. Women are expected to fulfil many roles – taking care of the home, caring for the children, fetching water and firewood, working on the farms, whilst at the same time taking care of the daily needs of her husband. The DCDO believes that for many girls, the ‘training’ they receive during initiations is more relevant to a girl’s life as it extends on the roles and responsibilities she has been used to throughout her young life. Instead of caring for younger children, she is encouraged to have a baby of her own. Instead of helping to head her family household, she is encouraged to marry and take care of her own home and family. The worry is where does academic schooling fit into this scenario – the process of initiation appears to have a negative impact on girls’ education, but arguably perpetuates the negative attitudes that exist regarding the importance of academic education. Not only this, but uncovering the truth behind cultural beliefs and practices demonstrate that gender issues are deeply embedded within culture and society in Malawi and show that the issue of gender in relation to education extends far beyond the confines of the school environment.
During my remaining time in Malawi, I will be visiting 3 more schools in Dedza, I will be interviewing the Coordinating Primary Education Adviser for the district and I will be talking to staff at YOCRIS and CAREER who work to promote child rights by advocating for change with regards to negative cultural practices. I will also be revisiting two of the schools I have already been to in order to talk to people in the communities that surround them, as well as talking to girls who have dropped out of school.
Link Community Development
For general information about Link’s work in Scotland and Africa please visit http://www.lcdinternational.org/
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