Like sacrificial lambs, hungry and poor girls and women in Nsanje District are forced to sleep with some exploitative traditional leaders in exchange for humanitarian food.
A girl or woman seeking a portion of the food that international donors are distributing freely, has first to satisfy the sexual hunger of some people in charge of relief food being distributed to various villages, according to reports from a women’s rights body, and confessions from girls and women in the district.
Link for Citizen Empowerment (The Link), a women’s rights body working in Nsanje and several other districts in the country, said the challenge is that the women who are exploited—mostly rural women—are already in a precarious situation where they consider survival as a priority.
In addition, they are unable to enforce their rights in the face of those who control the food and cash distribution exercise.
The Link country director Jephter Mwanza said his organisation has uncovered cases of power and sexual abuse that are perpetrated by village heads and members of local committees.
The twin disasters of floods and famine in the Lower Shire’s Nsanje District is what is pushing women and girls to high levels of desperation, forcing some of them to engage in food-for-sex for survival.
At Chikunkhu Village 1 in Traditional Authority Tengani, local girls jump at the opportunity to exchange sex for food.
But some affected girls look at sex-for-aid as a chance rather than an abuse. One girl, Memory Kalumbi, 15, a school dropout from the same village, narrated that if such an opportunity comes her way, she would happily accept it.
She said most girls in their culture are introduced to sex early as such do not see the advances from chiefs and aid workers as an abuse of their rights.
Said Kalumbi: “Girls take it as an opportunity and I would also happily accept if I were approached.”
For some girls, the sex is meant to cement their positions in the relief food distribution exercise. These girls exchange sex for positions in the relief programmes at village level.
Concurring with Kalumbi was 14-year-old Florence who also said it is culturally acceptable for girls to sleep with older men, adding: “In fact, some of my friends at my age even envy me.”
Her 15-year-old friend Regina, who also trades sex for food, agrees: “I know the chief who was given the task to manage humanitarian aid and was also sleeping with Florence.”
Like Kalumbi, she said she saw no problem having sex with a community leader because that enables her to receive food aid twice in a month instead of once.
Florence and Regina are from GVH Mgona in T/A Tengani and are both members of the village youth team that deals with humanitarian assistance. Their cases are well documented by The Link.
A woman from Chikunkhu I Village in T/A Tengani, whose identity cannot be disclosed for fear of reprisals from aid workers, said girls as young as 13 also sleep with local village heads to get a ration card.
“The rations are manipulated by chiefs and community leaders. Some demand to sleep with women to add them on the list of beneficiaries,” the woman told Weekend Nation in Nsanje on Saturday.
Married women, too, are involved in the ‘sex-for-food’ scheme. One such woman, Christina Lobo, also from Mgona Village, said she was in a relationship with an aid worker to get double rations.
Said Lobo: “We offer sex to the elders to keep our positions as well as keep receiving double rations.”
In T/A Makhuwira in Chikwawa, one area development committee (ADC) chairperson, who comes from Chizenga Village, Group Village Head Chizenga, was found in a classroom having sex with a married woman.
The woman involved told Weekend Nation that she accepted to enter into a relationship with the ADC chair so that she can be favoured in the relief distribution exercise.
“The ADC chair told me that if I am to receive a [ration] card, we should first be in a sexual relationship,” she said.
Nsanje district commissioner (DC) Gift Rapozo said he is aware of such cases in the district concerning ‘abuses’ of women and girls in relation to relief food and cash although some women and girls are not aware that the malpractices constitute abuse.
However, he said a lot of people cannot come out in the open because chiefs use scare tactics to suppress their subjects.
Said Rapozo in an interview on Tuesday: “Chiefs are reported to sometimes make announcements to their subjects, threatening to deal with anyone reporting of such malpractices in their villages and this is preventing people from speaking out.”
While Secretary for Gender in the Ministry of Gender, Child Welfare Dr Mary Shawa on Tuesday said she has not received such reports, she nonetheless condemned the malpractice.
Said Shawa: “These are sad developments, but we will need to raise awareness against such malpractices.”
The ‘sex-for-food’ practice is said to be rampant in Nsanje, one of the hardest hit districts by the disasters which have hit hard child and women-headed households that depend on menial jobs.
Floods in 2015 and erratic rains in the last growing season have left up to 8.6 million Malawians in need of food aid, according to the Malawi government.
In the wake of this development, government and aid agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), World Vision and Unicef launched a $395 million (about K288 billion) national relief food distribution programme last July to effectively reach out to heavily affected people, especially women and children.
Coincidentally, Nsanje is also where Vice-President Saulos Chilima, who heads the Department of Disaster Management, launched the national response programme. He warned against abuse of relief aid.
The government’s response provisions, according to Chilima, are in kind [food reliefs items] and cash.
The women say they trade sex for a ration which includes 50 kilogramme bag of maize, one litre cooking oil, five kilogrammes of beans and rice, and K18 000 cash.
According to The Link report, the exploited women are illiterate or semi-literate and, therefore, cannot engage in meaningful economic activity or employment save for casual labour and peasant farming.
On the other hand, the National Statistics Office (NSO) says about 65 percent of the female population in Malawi is illiterate.
Currently, Malawi has the eighth highest rate of child marriages in the world, with half of the girls marrying before the age of 18, according to the United Nations (UN). Some marry as young as nine or 10.
Between 2010 and 2013, 32 000 girls dropped out of school due to marriage while 20 000 dropped due to pregnancy, according to government statistics.
Nsanje HIV and Aids coordinator Macknowledge Tembo reported this week that HIV prevalence in the district is at 16 percent. The national average is 10 percent.
Despite the law prohibiting sex with a girl or boy under 16, the Constitution allows a child aged 15 to marry with the consent of parents.
However, there is no exemption in the law to protect someone from having sex with his or her 15-year-old spouse.
The abuse of food relief items has also affected child-headed households. In some cases, the households are being denied food because of grudges.
Take the example of Sayamika John, 17, and his two siblings who were denied food because a relation to his late father failed to grab the deceased’s property.
Sayamika, who lives in Mwalasapa 2 Village in T/A Tengani in the district, says his uncle who is a village head wanted some of the deceased’s property, but the boy, with the help of some village elders, prevented this attempted property grabbing.
Since the incident, the boy is denied relief items and his name is often omitted from the village register.
“This has been a source of a grudge. The chief prevents the inclusion of the boy or his siblings from being beneficiaries of the humanitarian assistance despite their apparent vulnerability,” said Litness Jombo from the same village in an interview., she gave at a safe place for fear of being spotted by people from the village.
She said the boy had to drop out of school to do piece works to feed his family.
According to Mwanza, the abuses are rife because there are no effective case-handling mechanisms to deal with such in Nsanje.
He said these cases do not hold any value to local authorities and village chiefs who are involved in these sexually invasive practices.
“No one has been punished despite revelations of such abuses. No complaints have been addressed. Neither do the committee members they complain to take their cases further,” he said. n