08/03/2012

Family planning in Ghana

MunikaWithBaby
Munika Mohammed and her son Muhaison at Tamale's newest family planning clinic. Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford. 

By Gwyneth Dunsford

Munika Mohammed sits in the clinic waiting room, breastfeeding her seven-month-old son.

Though the 28-year-old works at Tamale's newest family planning clinic, she still had to beg her husband to let her take contraceptives.

"I waited for a day when he was very happy," she says. "It was difficult to convince him ... but he realized that family planning isn't something that would (prevent me from having another child)."

The Marie Stopes International clinic is the only family planning clinic in Ghana's northern region. The U.K.-based NGO has clinics in Accra and Kumasi but a location in Tamale was long overdue, says Kenneth Danuo, the clinic's behaviour change communications coordinator.

"Tamale has a very high fertility rate (and) maternal deaths have also increased in this part of Ghana," he says.

According to the 2008 Ghana Demographics Health Survey, the northen region's fertility rate is 6.8. This means women of child-bearing age have an average of 6.8 children in their lifetime compared to the national average of four children per women of child-bearing age.

Mohammed's approach to contraception is typical for the region, says Danuo.

"The fear of the women is that (their) husbands, for all kinds of reasons, will not want (them) to ...  take family planning methods."

The main reason husbands deny their wives birth control are the misconceptions that they will never be able to conceive again, says Danuo.

Data from a recent presentation by the region's Family Planning Services shows married women decline taking contraception for many reasons. 

Marie Stopes International clinic is 200 metres away from Tamale's Central Mosque. Strong Islamic beliefs in the region are also hindering contraceptive use, says Danuo. 

Birth control injections like Depo-Provera are popular, because they prevent pregnancy for up to three months, says Danuo. Women can secretly get the shot and avoid telling their husband they are on birth control.

It's Mohammed's job to teach woman about the different types birth control. She reassures them that their periods won't stop and that they will be able to conceive again.

"Women are coming one-by-one and they don't know what method to choose, but after counselling...they (go) for the injectables," she says.

Like family planning services offered by Ghana Health Services, contraceptives at Marie Stopes are heavily subsidized. Both Marie Stopes and GHS charge 0.50 GHC ($0.25 Cdn) for an injection of Devo-Provera.

Mohammed's son, Muhaison, coos as she bounces him on her lap. Mohammed plans to have more children, but on her own schedule.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

Malawi'sJoyce Banda: Determining international, national loyalties

Desiree Buitenbos Joyce Banda

Joyce Banda before delivering her first state of the nation address at Malawi’s Parliament building in Lilongwe. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos.

By Desiree Buitenbos

Malawi’s President Joyce Banda knows how to impress donors.

In her first months in office, Banda has appeased the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) call to devalue the Malawi Kwacha, and announced that the country will soon loosen its tough stance on homosexuality.

The latter made international headlines, including praise from John Baird, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister.

“We are encouraged by her recent commitment to repeal discriminatory legislation, including legislation that persecutes gays and lesbians,” Baird said in a statement.

And local human rights activists couldn’t have agreed more.

Gift Trapense, director of the Center for the Development of People (CEDEP), acknowledges that repealing the law requires a parliamentary vote which might be tough to pass. But he argues that changing the law is imperative for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Malawi.

“We commend the government for taking that bold step in terms of respecting international human rights norms. It will go a long way to build the image of Malawi which was not good in the previous administration,” says Trapense.

 “When we talk about men having sex with men, we find that some have girlfriends, some are married which means that we are connected in terms of sexual activity. If you can’t prevent HIV amongst one group then you are not doing anything in terms of the whole pandemic.”

Generally speaking, African nations condemn same-sex relationships. In Northern Africa, homosexuals are sentenced to death. While in the South, with the exceptions of South Africa and Mozambique, the maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment.

In Malawi, some religious leaders argue that God created man and woman for a reason. They say anything else is abnormal and perverted.

But Banda’s appeal to retract “bad laws” made under late president Bingu Wa Mutharika has presented southern Africa’s first female president with a dilemma. On the one hand, Banda is succumbing to international pressure to honour human rights agendas. On the other, she is the leader of a country where homophobic sentiment is the norm. She risks losing popular support.

Within 48 hours of Banda’s surprising announcement during her first state of the nation address in May, her words were put to the test when a national newspaper ran a story about a lesbian couple in Blantyre publicly declaring their engagement. The women, Ruth Banda and Redgner Mmangausi, were quoted in the article as saying that they were so in love that society’s views of them didn’t matter.

This story was reminiscent of a saga from two years ago.

In a similar circumstance, two men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, announced their plans to marry. Under Mutharika, the men were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for committing “gross indecency and unnatural acts”.  They were later pardoned on humanitarian grounds after a visit from the United Nations secretary general, Ban-Ki Moon. But Mutharika never faltered on his stance that the men had violated Malawi’s cultural and religious laws.

Now Banda, who ascended to presidency after Mutharika’s sudden death, was faced with the same predicament.

Initially, it seemed like the lesbian couple’s arrest was imminent, however rumours were put to rest after moratorium was declared on the law.

Banda showed leadership by choosing not to back down.

It has since come out that the article that started the controversy was a fabrication. Both the author and the publishing house are now facing libel lawsuits. However, the episode has opened up the debate on whether Malawi, a self-described “God-Fearing Nation”, is ready to tolerate LGBT communities.  

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

 

Ghanaian sues for compensation after spening 14 years in prison

Francis court
Francis Agyare sits outside a courtroom in Accra, Ghana waiting for his trial to begin. Photo by Danny Kresynak.

By Danny Kresynak

Francis Agyare sits in the audience of a courtroom in Ghana’s Human Rights Court. He’s dressed in a blue plaid shirt, black belt and khaki pants that he rolls twice at the ankle. He’s clean shaven and his shoes are shined but he takes time to buff them as he waits for the clerk to call his name.

He says he needs to focus on his future rather than his life before his arrest. He was 26 then, the owner-operator of a small motorcycle mechanic shop in Jamestown-Accra. He was a family man and the sole means of financial support for his son and wife.

Agyare was never convicted of a crime, nor did he stand trial for any offence. Yet, he served 14 years and four months behind bars in Nsawam Prison before a judicial order freed him in 2008.

Now, nearly 18 years after his first night in a cell, he’s suing fo compensation. His case is in front of the court.

Agyare’s arrest was part of a sweep of Jamestown Beach.

“I went to buy fish, but the people I buy from weren’t around. I was waiting when I heard shots. I didn’t know what to do so I ran," he says.

That morning, police detained Agyare along with 57 others in connection with a single act of vigilantism.  At the police station, Agyare was interrogated and put in a holding cell with four other men. “They put us in a box they call 'lock-up'...No food, no water, barely enough air to breath.”

He spent a week in a regional holding cell before police dropped him off at Ghana’s largest prison.

Agyare found refuge on the prison's tower roof because it was the only place with room to move. Agyare would climb a drainage pipe fastened to the wall’s mortar and run a line along the roof to dry his laundry.

The view from the tower gave him an elevated perspective on the yard and a glimpse at the road beyond the prison’s barbed wire, wall and fortified gate. It was there, about seven years into his stay, that he decided to jump. “I remember that day, I was depressed. I looked to my left, nobody. I looked to my right, nobody," he says. “I told my friend I was going to hang clothes. But I wanted to die.” 

He suffered a split lip, scrapes and bruises. Agyare says the urge to die was motivated by his desperate surroundings.

His inability to end his life strengthened his faith and forced him to embrace his circumstances. 

Agyare recently returned to Nsawam to visit former cellmates. It was his first trip through the prison's gates since his exit June 2008.

“I would complain to every visitor about my case," he said. “I had faith, but (I) never thought I would get out.”

His persistence caught the attention of other prisoners, guards and eventually a lawyer from an NGO called Justice for All (JFA). The lawyer filed a motion for Agyare’s release. The judge ruled in his favour and Agyare was let go.

Agyare re-entered a world that had gone on without him. His wife had remarried and moved away with his son, now a young man. He also bore the stigma of years spent in prison. “It’s a struggle when you get out. I had no place to live, no job, nobody helping me.” 

He now lives in the home of Achimota Pastor, and JFA advocate Reverend Isaac Ofori.  Ofori gave Agyare a job as a security person at a vocational training centre run by his church.

His court case carries on.

In two prior hearings, the Attorney General and Regional Police Command have been unable to produce a docket with Agyare’s name on it. Agyare’s current lawyer, Francis Xavier says the details of the case warrant substantial compensation.

His argument focuses on Ghana’s constitutional requirement that all people in custody be processed by a judge within 48 hours of arrest.

“They cannot find his file because it doesn’t exist. He never saw the judge. He was locked up and forgotten about. They cannot give him the time back. It is unacceptable to take someone’s life away for no reason then release them with nothing," Xavier says.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

05/04/2012

Press freedom in Malawi

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The Daily Times newsroom. Photo by Karissa Gall. 

By Karissa Gall

Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s newest president on April 7 under the terms of the constitution, following two days of political uncertainty after the sudden death of the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

Having won national and international recognition for championing the education and rights of underprivileged girls, Banda’s ascension to the state house has raised hopes for a fresh start for the impoverished nation.

But in a place where a two-day national news blackout left Malawian media scrambling to ascertain the fate of the late head of state, what can be said for the future of press freedom under the new leader?

According to Daniel Nyirenda, deputy editor of The Daily Times and editor of The Business Times, it will take more than a transition of power to translate into improved media freedom.

“We are at a period now where there has been a suppression of media freedoms,” said Nyirenda, citing “bad laws” for press freedom that were enacted during Mutharika’s second term of office.

“We’ve also seen threats from the executive arm of government on the media and the banning of advertising to media that is unfriendly to government,” Nyirenda added.  “Reporters or even newspapers are afraid to publish certain stories for fear of getting a backlash from the executive arm of government.”

When asked if rights media might improve now that the executive arm of government is under Banda’s new leadership, Nyirenda said he is unsure.

“In my view, I think much won’t change because it’s the same people really, just wearing new clothes.  In Malawi, we have people who believe in controlling the media...so much won’t change.

“But, I’m hopeful that now that (Banda) has tasted life in the opposition she has learnt a lesson and she might be more flexible in the way she handles the media.”

Based on comments from The Daily Times’ current chief reporter, Charles Mpaka, Nyirenda’s hope may stand to come true.

While Mpaka said that colleagues working longer in the industry have testified that Banda was averse to criticism from the media and personally attacked journalists when serving as a minister, he added that after she was ousted from the DPP in December 2010 and started her opposition People’s Party, “she was reachable on her phones and willing to talk all the times that (he) phoned her.”

However, he added, the interviews were on issues serving her interests.

“From the experience that I have had with Malawian politicians, I would not rush to conclude that things will get easier for the media.  Politicians do change when they get the power and influence."

When asked what needs to change to usher in a new “normal” for press freedom in Malawi, Nyirenda said that it’s not the people that need to change but the system.

“We still have a hangover of one-party dictatorship in our laws,” said Nyirenda.  “We also need to change MBC (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) from a state-controlled institution to a public institution.

“We need to reviews these things – then there will be adequate press freedom in this country.”

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

 

05/03/2012

How Malawi will remember late president Bingu Wa Mutharika

Mutharika Parliament - Desiree Buitenbos
Bingu Wa Mutharika, former president of Malawi, died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos.

By Desiree Buitenbos

The flag flies at half mast outside Malawi’s parliament building where thousands of civilians have braved long line-ups in smoldering hot sunshine to view the body of late president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, who died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012.

To an outsider, this seems like a country truly mourning the loss of their beloved leader. Radio stations and newspapers are bombarded with messages of condolence, while government offices have shut down for the next 30 days.

And though some might argue that the sheer turnout to see Mutharika’s body is evidence of his vast popularity, there are others who say that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Precious Gondwe, 34, has been waiting in a queue to enter parliament for nearly two hours, and her determination to view Mutharika’s embalmed body is fuelled by a desire for closure rather than respect.

“I came here to see with my own eyes that our president is no longer with us,” says Gondwe, “It’s funny that we are lining up to see him when he is the reason we line up for essentials like petrol and sugar.”

Gondwe’s views are not uncommon.

According to Chijere Chirwa, a politics professor at Malawi’s Chancellor College, the lack of mourning among some Malawians can be characterized as “strange” but not unexpected considering the recent failures of Mutharika’s regime to uphold democratic ideals and improve the living conditions for the 74 per cent of the population who survive on less than a $1.25 per day.

“A lot of the critical minds would regard the current economic, social and political situation as developments closely connected with the president,” says Chirwa.

For the past two years, Mutharika, once hailed by the World Bank for his successful fertilizer subsidy program, steered Malawi’s economy into steep decline by telling foreign donors who contribute 40 per cent of the annual budget to “go to hell”.

His dismissal of aid catapulted the government into the adoption of a zero deficit budget which subsequently affirmed that the small landlocked country couldn’t self-sustain with limited resources.

More than 80 per cent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and tobacco is the country’s main crop, as well as its primary generator of foreign currency. But since 2011, sales of the golden leaf have plummeted by a dismal 57 per cent resulting in reduced finances to purchase fuel from suppliers like Saudi Arabia. This scarcity coupled with a fixed exchange rate has increased consumer inflation to a staggering 10.9 per cent.

According to Voice Mhone, chairperson for the Malawian Civil Society Organizations, the months leading up to Mutharika’s death were overshadowed by rampant dissatisfaction.

“I think the political landscape, as well as the economic situation in Malawi kept on deteriorating," says Mhone.

“Staying in a queue for fuel is now part of our daily life, and if you look at the price of sugar and other essential commodities they have all skyrocketed.”

On July 20, 2011, the anger and frustration surrounding the country’s economic crisis culminated in mass demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation. These peaceful protests soon turned into bloody riots when police opened fire on innocent crowds leaving 19 people dead and scores of others injured.

But Mutharika didn’t accept blame for the deaths, nor did he take the public criticism to heart; instead he began a vigorous campaign to clampdown on critics, media and opposition leaders.

Reverend Macdonald Sembereka, a civil and human rights activist who played an instrumental role in organizing the protests, had his home petrol bombed by suspected government youth cadets last September. But he says that while the nation has gone through a turbulent time, he has no hard feelings towards Mutharika.

“He did contribute what he could contribute. If he failed that would be part of human nature," says Sembereka. “I’ll remember him as a person who stuck to his guns. When he wanted to do something, he would stick to it, even though the whole world would stand on the opposite side.”

At Mutharika’s funeral in the southern region of Thyolo, recently inaugurated president, Joyce Banda summed up his life with the sentiment of the nation, saying, "He was not an angel, he made mistakes”.

For Banda, Malawi’s first female president, the road ahead is littered with the legacy of those mistakes, and the latter has prompted her government to resume donor talks with the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

05/02/2012

Life for children in Swaziland is far from a fairytale

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Pre-school children from the Ekuphileni Care Centre in Swaziland are educated about HIV/AIDS. Photo by Robin Pierro.

By Robin Pierro

The children of Swaziland's Ekuphileni Care Centre sit sprawled around Siphiwe Khumalo’s knees in a field of dry, yellowing long-grass outside their one-room preschool.

The valley is widely known as a resting place for royalty, and it is where King Mswati III, who has ruled Swaziland’s absolute monarch since 1986, keeps one of his many luxury homes.

Khumalo, who has been a pre-school teacher for nearly 20 years, begins clapping her hands and the children beam up at her attentively; she reads the title of that afternoon's book, “What You Need to Know About HIV and AIDS.” 

The stark reality of life for the children living in "Paradise Valley" is far from an enchanting fairytale. Half of the 30 children attending the centre are HIV/AIDS orphans and several are infected with the virus as well. 

Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. Twenty-six per cent of population is living with the virus and the average life span is 37. 

“It’s good for them to learn about AIDS now, that way they can grow up knowing more than we did,” Khumalo says, “But what they really need right now is a place to sleep.” 

Khumalo and other community members are fighting to have an orphanage built to house the estimated 300 orphaned children in the surrounding area.

“In this area, it’s become so bad, almost every house has taken in an orphan, I have three with me now. Their parents die of AIDS and then they are left with nowhere to go,” she says.

The orphanages in the nearby cities are at capacity and individuals living around the pre-school feel it’s important for the kids to remain in their own area, around family and friends, once their parents have died.

Not far from the pre-school is a community centre that was built several years ago by King Mswati III in an attempt to diminish the number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS in the area. He has opened similar centres in many rural communities across the country. 

Vilakati Khanyisile, the secretary at the centre, who also plays the role of mother to four orphaned children, says that Mswati's attempt to hinder the epidemic - through the building of the centre - was not enough.

She says that although providing money to construct the building was a good thing, they no longer receive financial support from their government. The centre’s HIV/AIDS awareness programs run based off donations from foreign philanthropists.

The constant flux of foreign donations has caused major problems, such as unsustainable programming, and the donations are not enough to run an orphanage out of the centre.

 “It should not be up to foreigners who come here to give us money, our own government, our own king, should be doing better, says Khanyisile.

Khanyisile has contacted government officials to inform them of her community’s needs countless times, but years of being ignored have made her distrustful and frustrated.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

04/25/2012

Children in Malawi run away due to lack of food

Untitled-4-8Tikhala Chilembwe used to be one of many street children in Malawi, but he has since returned to school. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

By Desiree Buitenbos

Its 10 p.m. in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and the nighttime vultures that characterize the city at night are out in full force.

Prostitutes prey on drunk men stumbling out of dimly lit bars, while stray dogs are on the hunt for scraps leftover from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours. These desolate streets are no place for a child to grow up, yet many often do.

A 10-year-old boy who didn't want to give his name says he has been sleeping in a gutter outside a popular grocery store for the past three years. He says poverty pushed him into the streets after he lost both his parents to AIDS.

“Most of the time, I beg for money to buy food because I have no one to look after me," he says. “The problem is some men at night will beat us up and take all that we have sourced throughout the day, leaving us with nothing at all”

Chimwemwe, 12, also left home with dreams of finding a better life in the big city, but his experience has been more comparable to a recurring nightmare. 

“Some men rape us night," he says “Others beat us and tell us to go away saying that we are thieves in town”

According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8,000 children living on the streets in Malawi’s major urban centers. Most of them are boys, and 80 per cent are AIDS orphans. These youngsters are often labelled by locals as purse-snatching, thugs, but the reality is that many of them have suffered unimaginable physical and sexual abuses.

Dr. Joseph Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, says that homelessness disrupts the sense of safety and security that children need, and as a result, they wander through life lacking self-confidence and being wary of adults.

“The trust and confidence that good things will happen to them is not there," Bandawe says.

“This affects their social interactions – defining the way they’re able to relate to other people, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.”

Bandawe’s explanation might explain why many of Malawi’s street kids are tempted by a life of crime, but he also suggests that building trust and restoring family ties is imperative when returning troubled kids to school.

Chisomo Childrens Club is a local non-profit working on child poverty issues, and their main mission is to integrate youth back into an ordinary way of life. According to Irene Ngumano, a senior social worker for Chisomo, the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitation is working with families who were willing to let their children go in the first place.

“Many families that we are working with are poverty stricken families who typically don’t have three meals a day," says Ngumano.

With Malawi’s escalating economic problems, inflation now stands at a staggering 10.9 per cent, causing the prices of essential commodities like bread and sugar to skyrocket. This implies one thing: the number of street children is set to increase unless there is radical policy change.

But Ngumano adds that if families are facing financial difficulties, Chisomo provides monetary assistance which enables them, at the very least, to feed their dependents.

Such was the case with 17-year-old Tikhala Chilembwe who ran away from home in Grade 3. He slept under a bridge for years, until he was discovered by Chisomo social workers who reunited him with his legal guardians and resumed his education.

“My life is okay right now,” says Tikhala, with a smile. “When I’m finished school, I want to become a doctor and I am going to work hard to achieve my goals."

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

 

04/18/2012

African women in media: Marking waves in radio

Bridget in studio
Bridget Nambah in her radio studio at Tamale's Diamond FM. Photo by Gwyneth Dunford

By Gwyneth Dunford

Mostly ladies are known to be shy ... [too] shy to talk in public.”

This is a strange declaration from Bridget Nambah, a DJ and talk show producer at Tamale's Diamond FM. The 19-year-old from Ghana's Northern Region is fighting her own stereotyping. She has been broadcasting since high school, when she snuck into public speaking seminars to learn her craft.

 “In Ghana here, most often ladies don't report,” she says.” [Producers] want the ladies to be comfortable. When they are sending out reporters, they are mostly sending out the males. A man can easily defend himself from danger but a lady cannot do that.”

While female journalists are becoming more common in urban centres like Accra, Tamale is still an outpost for traditional gender norms, says gender expert Safia Mousah. She says leadership qualities are not fostered in Ghanaian women, so they do not pursue professions like journalism.

“In our culture, the women always takes the backstage,” says Mousah, who works for the anti-poverty NGO, Action Aid. “She takes all the instructions.”

Women who are outspoken are deemed “deviant”, according to Mousah. She points to the lack of women in Ghanaian political life as a telling example of this. Female politicians are scrutinized harshly about everything from their hairstyles to their husbands; scrutiny from which their male colleagues are exempt.

“Looking at the very few women we have in leadership roles, in journalism, it's very clear that  [society] is hard on them,” says Mousah.

Nambah credits her strong personality for her success.

“Generally in Africa, women are perceived to be relegated to the background”, says Akosua Kwartemaa, the female manager at Tamale's Fiila FM.

 Since starting at Fiila nine years ago, Kwartemaa has seen a slow progression of gender equality in media.

“Of late, things are changing,” she says. “We feel, what a man can do, we can do and even do it better.”

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

04/17/2012

Malawi’s fisherman more likely to catch HIV: Reports

FishLake Chilwa’s fishermen lead risky lifestyles that increase their chances of contracting and spreading HIV. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos 

 

By Desiree Buitenbos

Ronald Gomo, 37, is a fisherman who would rather live alone than associate with the other fishermen who reside on the shorelines of Malawi’s Lake Chilwa.

“Before, when I was living over there [with the other men], I spent all my earnings on having sex with prostitutes.”He says, “Now, that I stay here, I am able to keep my money.”

Gomo has been living in relative isolation for the past seven years in a floating house he built himself. There is no running water, electricity or formal toilet.

He chooses to live under these conditions because it prevents his self-described “womanizing ways”.

Like many of Malawi’s 50,000 fishermen, Gomo is married. In fact, he has two wives. However, that never stopped him from hiring prostitutes when the catch was good, and the alcohol was flowing.

“It was too easy,” he laughs, “some women there were even willing to give sex for fish”

If Gomo knows one thing, it’s that he doesn’t want to return to his former ways. But it’s what he doesn’t know that’s cause for concern. Gomo has never undergone an HIV test which is worrying considering 17 per cent of the population surrounding Lake Chilwa is infected.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fisherman in developing countries suffer from a high HIV prevalence, often five-to-ten times higher than the general population.

Their vulnerability to the virus can be attributed to numerous factors, including their mobile lifestyles, long months spent away from home, access to daily cash income, readily available commercial sex, and the hyper-masculine fishing subculture which promotes risky behaviours such as unprotected sex and substance abuse.

Little research has been done on just how many fishermen at Lake Chilwa are HIV positive, but some academic papers have studied the correlation between the lake’s high water levels during the rainy season and an increase in reported infections.

When water levels are low, fish are harder to find which results in a food shortage for small pockets of the surrounding population. It’s during these times that women will offer themselves in return for the catch of the day. 

However, when the levels are stable, the fishermen recover from a short-term economic slump and earn massive profits. Ultimately, they become icons of prosperity in their impoverished communities. This allows them to frequent prostitutes and have several wives or girlfriends, but it also implies that they’re playing key roles in spreading the infection.

According to Clement Mwazumbumba, Lake Chilwa’s District AIDS Coordinator, many of the men don’t know their HIV status because access to clinics is limited due to the very nature of the fishing industry.

“Fishing is a daily engagement, and everything you do depends on your catch” He says, “It would take a lot of planning for someone to abandon their work, go to the shore and travel some kilometers away just to undergo a test.” 

Mwazumbumba adds that entering the secluded pockets where fisherman work is a challenge.

“We have tried to penetrate the lakeshore area with services, but it’s expensive to a mount mobile clinic,” he says “I think if we had very aggressive focus on the area, maybe more people would know their status.”

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

 

04/16/2012

Money lending sparks new-found rights for women in Malawi

Karissa
 Women from the Nkalo village VSLA are pictured contributing and lending kwacha during one of their meetings. Photo by Karissa Gall. 

By Karissa Gall

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but in Nkalo village it grows near one.

In the centre of the village a tree has become the site of new financial freedom and empowerment for local women – an outdoor Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) that is literally taking a grassroots approach to providing women with the opportunity to access a loan.

Roughly 25 kilometres from the ATM queues that are characteristic of Malawi’s commercial capital of Blantyre, 10 Nkalo women meet regularly under the tree to contribute kwacha in amounts that range up to $3 depending on what they can individually afford, and lend to one another.

The microfinance project is overseen by the Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (CAVWC) Women’s Rights Programme and based on the VSLAs first engineered by aid agency CARE International in Niger in 1991.

According Chrissy Chibwana, one of the members of the Nkalo VSLA, the alternative micro-lending model has made her more economically independent and better equipped to care for her family.

“Before (the VSLA) I had to ask for money from my husband all the time to buy salt or sugar or pay for my children’s school fees,” said Chibwana.  “Now, I no longer have to wait for my husband to look for the money to send my children to school. I have the power to get money whenever the need arises.

Because the women are  lending to themselves, the VSLA model is not only providing women like Chibwana access to loans but also allows the women to earn interest and save.

Nkalo VSLA members Dorothy Musaya and Anne Maere said they have been able to lend money and save enough of the interest to improve their standards of living; with Musaya able to buy 24 iron sheets for her house and Maere being able to buy cement, and a mattress. 

According to CAVWC executive director Joyce Phekani, such success stories are becoming more common in Malawi as VSLA membership rises each year, increasing economic independence and empowering women who would otherwise be dependent on a man.

“We were finding that women would stick to a relationship where she was being abused because she was not economically independent,” said Phekani.  “But these VSLAs are financially empowering women.

“When we first start a VSLA we find that the women are not empowered, they are really shy, inhibited and can’t see any future with their lives.  From day-to-day, we find that these women are able to survive better than in the past.  For women who were never able to save anything in their lives you can see the visible joy that they now have.”

However, challenges still exist in achieving greater gender equality through the VSLA finance model; access to financial resources alone does not automatically translate into empowerment or equality and according to Phekani some women are still being short-changed.

“We can’t rule out women who succumb to their husbands, which is a challenge for us,” she said.  “Recently we heard of a woman who had built capital by doing a small business of selling tomatoes.  When she was asked where the money she’d earned was she said she’d given it all to her husband.”

Pece Pearson of Nkalo confirmed that such challenges exist on the ground, saying that “there are some men who steal from their wives and use the money for petty things like beer.”

To address the issue of not only access but control of financial resources, Phekani said the CAVWC plans to “build the capacity of the program” through leadership, business management and training workshops.  The training will aim to address issues of power relations within the VSLA groups as well as in the family home.

Since CAVWC launched its first VLSA in 2009 a total of 326 VSLAs have been established in the Chiradzulu district in Nkalo, Kadewere and Onga.  Of them, 314 associations are exclusive to women who have been historically disadvantaged in access to material resources like credit, property and money.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From music in Malawi, town criers in Liberia and the thrills of navigating through Sierra Leone, the blog Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights trainers on the ground. In addition to creating human rights media, the journalists will be writing about their experiences about the continent.

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.