Sexual attacks and gender-based against women and girls in Malawi put them at risk of HIV infection. At worst, some cases involve adolescents the size of a girl disguised as Misozi in compliance with child protection laws.
In Malunda Village, a banana-growing locality at the heart of Traditional Authority Njema in Mulanje, tongues are still wagging about how a subsistent maize farmer repeatedly raped the 10-year-old girl he often accompanied to fetch firewood and water.
The locals in the remote setting rue themselves for taking too long to uncover the man, who seemingly so loved the stepdaughter he hardly allowed her to leave home alone until she revealed that he was a sexual pervert.
“Their closeness raised suspicion,” says her grandmother. “When I discreetly asked her what was going on between her and the stepfather, she reluctantly told me that he had been sleeping with her for over a month.”
On August 29 2017, the grandparent reported Misozi’s stepfather to Mloza Police Post near the border between Malawi and Mozambique. The police later detained the man and took the girl to Mulanje District Hospital where medical tests confirmed she was being sexual assaulted-getting infected with HIV.
The case shines a light on the coming together of gender-based violence and the virus affecting nearly a tenth of people in Malawi.
Girls under siege
But Misozi is just one of many victims of sexual violence, which often go unreported because they mostly involve family members and stigma.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), one in five Malawian girls is a victim of sexual violence-as is one in seven boys. Its survey found that most abusers are people that children trust and are related to, such as uncles, stepfathers, fathers and other people who are supposed to be protecting young people.
UN Women is working closely with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (Unaids) to reduce the impact of gender-based violence and the risk of HIV infection among girls and women.
“UN Women is the youngest of the Unaids cosponsors and we are delighted to work closely with Unaids and other partners under the Unified Budget, Results and Accountability Framework [Ubraf] 2016-2021,” says UN Women country representative Clara Anyangwe.
The unified front is an instrument to maximise the coherence, coordination and impact of the United Nations (UN) response to HIV by combining the efforts of the Unaids’ secretariat and its 11 cosponsors.
In the new approach, UN Women has also teamed up with Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, National Aids Commission (NAC), National Law Commission, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Malawi Network of Aids Service Organisations (Manaso) and the civil society to combat practices that restrict sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls.
“Working together as Unaids cosponsors is just a better approach,” says Ms Anyangwe. “There is no single agency that can help the country to achieve the Unaids 90-90-90 targets. Instead, each agency has a comparative advantage that they bring to the table. In this case, UN Women brings in the gender dimension and Unaids its expertise in the HIV response.”
Malawi has made great progress in reducing new HIV infections.
Three years ago, the year it emerged that Misozi had been infected by her perverted keeper, there were 39 000 new HIV infections, a 40 percent reduction since 2010.
However, 9 500 of the new infections occurred among adolescent girls aged between 15 and 24. This is more than double the number among men of the same age group, Unaids reports.
The joint project has produced a perception study to lift a lid and shatter the silence on the prevailing gender norms that increase violence against women and girls and their exposure to HIV.
Among the harmful practices are the rites of passage practices, sexual cleansing, child marriage, marriage by proxy and transactional sex.
The new evidence will be used to track progress of the National Strategic Plan for HIV and Aids, which calls for greater involvement of traditional leaders and those who facilitate rite of passage practices to monitor and address harmful cultural practices.
The UN organisations and their partners have been working with chiefs as well as mother and father groups to confront risky practices, peer pressure, stigma, GBV and lack of access to youth-friendly HIV and SRHR services.
Men for change
The national response also includes a series of intergenerational dialogues that brought together young people, people living with HIV and traditional and faith-based leaders.
“We also leveraged UN Women’s global He for She campaign to engage men and boys as partners of women and girls. We were looking particularly to foster a positive masculinity. How can we use masculinity to protect women and girls against harmful practices?” said Anyangwe.
During the dialogues, more than 100 men and boys pledged to be He for She champions to promote gender equality and reduce HIV, GBV and sexual attacks.
The human rights approach has led to translation and wide dissemination of laws and policies that relate to HIV and gender translated into local languages.
“We really value UN Women’s continued support and partnership in ending HIV and gender-based violence in Malawi,” says Unaid’s country director Thérèse Poirier. “It has been beneficial to work as One UN so we don’t confuse our national counterparts by coming in and working separately on different areas of these interconnected and multilayered epidemics.”