DEDZA, Malawi – The girls at Makankhula primary school in Malawi’s Dedza district say they want to be nurses, so that they can take care of people.
But as soon as class starts, fists and fingers start flying towards faces. The girls are learning how to hurt people, so that they can take care of themselves.
“We teach these girls that they don’t have to fight using knives, stones. No, they use the parts of their body that they were born with,” says Alinafe Kambalane, a self-defense teacher working with Kenyan charity Ujamaa. The girls in the class start pumping their knees upwards. “As you can see, the girls are hitting the groins of the assailant, so that they can get away,” says Kambalane.
According to UNICEF, one in five girls in Malawi has experienced some kind of sexual violence. Cultural norms and taboos make it difficult for victims of abuse to report incidents or get the support they need, and even less likely that the perpetrators will face any consequences. With the country’s adults failing to protect its children, Ujamaa wanted to put the power into the children’s hands. In late 2014, the charity started going to schools to teach self-defense and self-awareness classes.
One of the students, Fazani, 14, used to be scared of the older men who followed and called to her on her way to school, but didn’t know what to do. “I told my parents about it, but they would ignore me,” she says.
And Tiamiga, 17, didn’t know that what the boys at school were doing to her was wrong, although it made her feel bad. “A lot of boys used to grope me, but I was afraid of them beating me if I said no,” she says.
Stories like these are common among Malawi’s girls and young women, says Nankali Maksud, head of child protection for UNICEF Malawi. “We know that young girls, as they’re walking to school, are inappropriately touched by men, by the taxi drivers, when they’re in school by teachers” and by their peers, she says.
When it comes to being inappropriately touched, “young girls see that that’s the norm,” and don’t even recognize it as wrong, Maksud says.
In its own survey of 11,460 female pupils, Ujamaa found that, on average, one in five girls reported having been raped. Teachers at Makankhula primary school say that many girls who have been raped stay silent because they usually know the perpetrators and worry about the repercussions of reporting them.
“This is really key because I think a lot of the time, we tend to assume it’s strangers,” says Maksud. “It’s not. It’s uncles, step-fathers, fathers, neighbors,” as well as friends or boyfriends.
The teachers say some students who are abused withdraw into themselves, cutting off close friends and family due to the fear of stigma and a sense of personal shame and blame about the rape. “When girls are abused, they can’t see a future, and can drop out of school or even kill themselves,” says Mary Waya, herself an abuse survivor and now a netball coach for Malawi’s national women’s team and for girls in her charity netball academy.
For many girls, Ujamaa’s self-defense trainers are the only people they feel they can trust with the truth of their abuse. “Most of these shocking stories are how they have been harassed by men, and how they have not talked to anyone about it,” says Kambalane, a former social worker and now one of Ujamaa’s 50 teachers. The youngest girl so far to reveal to Kambalane that she had been raped was 12 years old.
While two-thirds of the children Ujamaa trains are girls, the sessions also help boys combat bullying, violence and pressure from peers and parents to get girlfriends, leave school and marry in their teens.
Many boys, like 17-year-old Godfrey, end up using their Ujamaa skills to protect girls.
“I saw a man trying to rape a woman on the way home from school and I screamed ‘no’ and he ran away,” says Godfrey.
In Kenya, where Ujamaa teaches children in slum areas, a study carried out by Stanford University found that half the boys had seen a man physically threatening or sexually assaulting a girl or woman within six months of the course ending. And around three quarters of those had managed to successfully intervene.
But getting grownups to step in and stop the abuse will take more work, says Ujamaa board member Brendan Ross. “Getting through to [adults] is going to be three times harder,” he says, especially as Malawi’s customs include things like forced child marriage. “I think we know that sexual violence in the Malawian context is a social norm,” says Ross.
Even if the justice system was serious about tackling the problem, “the prevalence of rape and sexual violence is so high that there’s no way that any system could respond to that,” he says.
For now, the children have to challenge abuse on their own. And according to the Stanford University study, some are doing that already. The study showed that half the girls who attended Ujamaa classes reported using their new skills within a year, and in the schools where they were taught, rape rates fell by half.
“These classes are really helpful because, if I come across attackers, I will be able to defend myself,” says Fazani, who now uses the first move taught in the class – saying or shouting “No” – against the men who used to follow her to school. “I now tell people ‘no’ and that I will tell an adult.”
Tiamiga has also used that move to stop the boys who would grope her at school. It took her using another move, the eye poke – twice – to finally get rid of the boys who used to wait for her on the way home from school, often forcing her to skip school altogether.
Now, she never misses school. “[The class] has been really useful and has helped me in my community,” says Tiamiga. “People have really seen the change in me.”