Tuesday 21 February 2012

A letter from Malawi: powerful acts of challenge and change

The below was written by Fiona Morrell at Theatre for a Change, who contacted me yesterday. What she communicated was so powerful I asked if I could reproduce her words here. She has many interesting and urgent things to say about Malawi, women, power, abuse, HIV, equality and education. If you would like to know more about Theatre For A Change, please email fiona.morrell@tfacafrica.com

Theatre for a Change was founded in 2003 in Ghana as a NGO focused on HIV prevention. In 2007 it opened an office in Malawi which now employs over 60 people. HIV disproportionately affects women. We use experiential, participatory approaches to equip profoundly marginalised people, almost always women and girls, with the skills and knowledge to protect themselves from HIV and advocate for their gender and sexual rights.

In Malawi we work in two main ways, through formal education, empowering young teachers with skills to pass through to children and make their classrooms more equitable places, and our community work where we specifically work with sex workers.

Sex workers are the most at risk group in the country with an HIV prevalence rate of 70.1%. Our cohort of sex workers go through a process of behavioural change workshops to explore how to gain self confidence and a thorough knowledge of their rights. They then become empowered to become advocates for their rights through legislative theatre. Legislative theatre, based on the ideas of Boal and Friere, is based on the belief that we can tell someone to do something all they like, but it is only through standing in their shoes that real change can be manifested.

The women take their improvisations into places where abusers are, to bars, to the police station. They start performing their stories in their language, and then invite an audience member to take on a role of a vulnerable character. Suddenly a client starts to feel how difficult it is to negotiate for the use of a condom, to feel frightened, to have no choices. The effect is very powerful. Recently the women took their work into Parliament - something which was highly controversial bearing in mind Malawi does not properly acknowledge the presence of sex workers. Their advocacy will help push for legal clarity of their status - something which is currently unsure. They also work closely with the police, the group whom they identify as most likely to abuse them, and who subsequently have the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the country. We hope this will lead to long term systemic change.

One year ago the women launched the equals campaign, demanding the right for women to be seen and treated as equals. This campaign is growing and gathering support from women across the country. Our cohort of women working as sex workers are also given the opportunity to learn income generating skills: metal work, sausage making, hairdressing or dress making which will give them options to leave sex work in the future.

We are unusual in dealing with HIV through promoting gender equality, but we believe, that sustainable prevention will happen only when women are empowered to protect their sexual health. We are soon to start a similar project with sex workers in Ghana.

I believe passionately that the work the women in Malawi do should be heard about and celebrated - not only because of their bravery and determination, but to emphasise that one cannot separate health, social well being and gender - that if we continue to ignore gender inequity we will fail to tackle other great development issues - this really isn't rocket science but it is not, in my opinion, talked about or valued enough.