Community Champions: Malawi’s royal couples

Posted March 28, 2012 in Malawi, Press Coverage

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One of the first things Camfed does when we begin working in a rural community is to sit down with the local traditional leaders to ask them about the challenges that their communities are facing and their goals for their young people.

In that spirit, last year, Angeline Murimirwa, Executive Director of Camfed’s Malawi office, invited 23 traditional authorities and their wives from all of our partner districts in Malawi to convene in Blantyre. The goal: to share thoughts around child protection, with particular attention to early pregnancy and child marriage.

Kimberley Sevcik, Camfed’s Media Relations Manager, talked to Angeline about what transpired.

Kimberley: Why is it important in the context of what Camfed does to meet with royal couples?

Angeline: As an organization, we seek to work with everybody who touches a child’s life. Traditional authorities are particularly important because they are the moral custodians in their communities. They’re the opinion leaders and they establish the community values. They hold the power to get children into school.

Also, if you want community involvement in a program, you must start with the traditional leaders.

What was your objective in calling this meeting?

The key challenge in Malawi around girls’ education is early marriage and pregnancy. We wanted to ask traditional authorities for their support in preventing those things, and in getting children into school.

You invited the traditional authorities’ wives, which was unusual. Why did you include them?

Some of the wives have experienced the issues we gathered to discuss, such as dropping out of school because of pregnancy or early marriage, so we knew they would take an interest. We wanted them to recognize that even though they are not crowned chiefs, they are informal leaders in their community and women respect and model themselves after them.

Inviting the wives was unprecedented. Some of the traditional authorities did not bring their wives on the first day. Then on the second day, once they felt they could trust us they called their wives to join them.

How did you earn their trust?

When we go into a community, we don’t compromise their power or tell them what we think they’re doing wrong. We’re respectful of their authority and of the efforts that they are making. And we ask a lot of questions. We started by asking the leaders what they want for their children. The responses we heard were: “We don’t want children having children. We want our young people to be proud of themselves. We want our own doctors, our own teachers, we want our own children leading us, not people coming from the outside.”

Then we asked them what they think will help children achieve that: “Do you need more information, more resources, more skills?” We also said, “If you want doctors, you have to send your children to school!”

Did you discuss sensitive issues?

Yes, we talked about traditional practices that hurt children and how, as leaders, they have a role to play in stopping them or fueling those practices. It was a two-way conversation – the authorities and their wives shared stories about what goes on in their communities, and when we heard about something that was harmful to children, we would troubleshoot by asking a lot of questions. By the end there was a change in the tone of discussions, and some of the leaders were condemning the practices on their own.

What were the most important outcomes of the meeting?

The traditional authorities all seemed to agree, by the end, that their wives have an important leadership role to play in their community, particularly when it comes to keeping girls in school. The wife of traditional authority Symon said, “Now I can go back and set an example of what every woman can do to keep children in school and happy.”

But I think the most important thing that happened is we opened a door. Traditional authorities in Malawi now trust that we genuinely care about what happens to their children, and that is what’s going to allow us to take these conversations to another level and to start creating change.

[photo: Traditional Authority Symon's wife addresses the other royal couples]