Whose priorities count?


Malawi is a beautiful country, and is often referred to as the warm heart of Africa. Almost a third of the country is the lake that borders Mozambique and Tanzania, which symbolically and literally has a powerful presence in Malawian culture. It is a land-locked country, one of the smallest in Africa. Malawi’s Vision 2020 states that the country aspires to be ‘a God-fearing nation, secure, democratically mature, environmentally sustainable, self-reliant with equal opportunities for and active participation by all, having social services, vibrant cultural and religious values and a technologically-driven middle-income economy.’

At the moment, things are tough. It’s the worst drought in 35 years, and Malawi’s poorest families have no clean water. With little rainfall, thousands of people have no choice but to drink from dirty water sources, and people are getting sick. According to one NGO, Partners in Health, just in the last 2 months 103 people have been treated for typhoid, which is the highest number they have seen in 2 month time period since 2012.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is ranked 173 out of the 188 countries ranked in the UNDP Human Development Index in 2015. Almost three quarters of the population (currently estimated at around 17 million people) live beneath the poverty line and earn less than USD$1.25 a day.

For many young girls in Malawi, additional challenges remain that prevent them from achieving their full potential. There is a high prevalence of child marriage and teenage pregnancy, which is closely interrelated with a range of economic and sociocultural determinants that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities for the poorest and most vulnerable girls. In 2014, more than one third of all new infections were amongst adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years.

At Watipa, some of us were involved in formative research to inform a new multi-media campaign that Girl Effect will be developing in Malawi. The idea is to meet girls where they are in their lives, in order to respond to challenges like the drought or their early marriage or the long distances they have to walk to school. The approach we recommended is called an ‘ecological’ view – one that takes a girl-centred approach to understanding personal and social dynamics, and that recognizes that in order to empower girls, different levels involving her relationships, communities and society need to change as well.

However, it is not straight forward. A media campaign re-affirming her value and choices in life may not resonate for a girl in Malawi who in the current conditions is forced to walk long distances to fetch and carry water, that is essential for life but also making herself and her family sick with typhoid.

Meeting people where they are – and responding rather than imposing priorities – remains an ethical as well as programmatic challenge for all that we do.

Lucy Stackpool-Moore

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