Women's development in Malawi townships
Sister Mary Doonan was involved in women’s development activities in Malawi for many years. She tells us this develops the women’s self-esteem. They discover their creative capacity. This, in turn, leads them to realize they have a story that is worth telling.
"In our MMM community, as we reflected on the needs around us, it became more and more obvious to us that the HIV/AIDS situation was placing huge demands on women:
- Poverty increased in many families
- Home nursing care had to be provided
- Other sick family and community members had to be visited
- Attending funerals and cooking at them was a big demand
- Care of orphans.
"At the same time:
- Many women feared becoming infected with HIV from unfaithful husbands
- Women could not talk about HIV/AIDS with their husbands
- There was a high incidence of domestic violence which most women feared to talk about
- Women worried about care for their children if they died from AIDS.
"We could see the women needed a safe place where they could openly share and discuss their situation, find support among themselves, and hopefully some solutions to their problems. This would include providing them with some skills for income generation.
"In 2000 we commenced our Women’s Development Project in Mtsiriza Township, later expanding to other villages. Although we initiated the group using Catholic parish structures, the group quickly became an inter-faith group. Then in 2005 we were asked to go to an already-established widows’ group at Kawale, across town, to help these women form a bereavement support group and help the orphans. Somehow they had heard we had been doing this in Mtsiriza. We also help them with handcraft skills.
"Slowly but surely we try to move along with the women at their pace.
• Using stories of women in Scripture we have been able to create the safe space that has allowed many women to share stories and thus gradually break the silence around HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, child abuse and other issues they previously feared to talk about openly.
• At times some women have been able to seek and get assistance from the Parish Justice and Peace Group, e.g. for domestic violence situations or when denied vouchers for fertilizer, etc.
• In 2004/2005 we conducted gender workshops, followed by Stepping Stones Workshops. Most women participated with their husbands in the Stepping Stones Workshop and many for the first time were able to discuss together as couples HIV/AIDS and other relational family issues. This has proved very helpful to men as well as women. Trócaire funded these workshops and enabled us work at a pace decided by the women.
• Some sessions on bereavement have contributed to the women now wanting to break cultural taboos and talk with children re HIV/AIDS and death. We are about to embark on our Memory Book for Africa project. This will be followed by women working with orphans on their own memory books. This facilitates children telling their own stories.
• Many women participate in literacy classes and are so proud when they can sign their name, read notices, and help their children in primary school with their homework. It has also made it easier to use teaching aids when working with the women.
• All the women in our groups have learned new handcraft skills. They are extremely proud to be able to make clothes for themselves and their children, banners for the Church, etc. From time to time they can sell some of their crafts. Being creative is very good therapy. It is amusing now to see some women knit even as they walk!
• Some women have been to the Home Craft Training School and are now able to share their skills with other women and orphans.
• A Mosquito Net Project whereby the women can purchase nets at cost price has reduced considerably the prevalence of malaria in the area.
• Body mapping and learning about their bodies has also proved successful. Now women become more aware of when they or their children need to go to the hospital and how to look for their rights at the hospital.
• In collaboration with the TB Equity Project we have been able, via the women’s development project and home-based care programme to initiate a TB DOT (directly observed treatment) Programme. It is working extremely well. There is a very high incidence of TB in the township but because of poverty many did not access free treatment at the Government hospital. Now that the TB programme has come to the township, many are accessing treatment.
• Following an intensive educational programme on voluntary counselling and testing and antiretroviral therapy (VCT/ART) conducted in conjunction with the home based care, we now have a weekly VCT/ART clinic in the township and many are availing of this service. We provide food supplements for those on ART who require assistance."