Abused, but not broken: Surviving sexual violence with help from the Spotlight Initiative

Back to school. Spotlight beneficiaries during a group discussion 
© UNICEF Malawi/2020/Laurine Meke
Back to school. Spotlight beneficiaries during a group discussion
© UNICEF Malawi/2020/Laurine Meke

By Sellina Kainja

A good Samaritan in the name of a family friend one day showed up at Chikondi Phiri’s (not her real name) house. The man promised to look after Chikondi and cater for her school needs including tuition and other school necessities.

He said he saw potential in her and felt that the only way to rescue Chikondi from the jaws of poverty that had ravaged her family was to assist in any small way he could. Her parents were over the moon and with that, they gladly accepted the offer. In no time, Chikondi, third born child from a family of five, moved from their home village to stay with the Samaritan in the same district.

Surviving sexual violence

One day, the once good Samaritan who Chikondi’s parents trusted to take care of their daughter, turned into a villain. He raped Chikondi.

“He tried to force himself on me several times but I fought back. But one day he raped me. I got pregnant and reported the matter to the local police station. He got arrested but was released after only a week. There was nothing my mother could do because we didn’t know where else to take this matter to,” she explains.

Despite this ordeal, Chikondi’s spirits were never broken. She was determined to go back to school and turn things around for herself, her child and her community. But there was a challenge, her family could not manage to raise school fees for her.

Chikondi’s father had cut off all support to the family because he is no longer in talking terms with her mother. Her mother’s banana fritters could not sustain the five children and support their education. Her uncle tried to help, but only managed to pay for her first term.

After noticing her absence from school, her teachers followed up to find out why she was not attending classes. They told her about the Spotlight Initiative scholarships for girls.

“When I heard about Spotlight scholarships, I did not hesitate. I asked my mother to come and meet the headmaster to know more. I am very happy that I got this scholarship and I am back in school,” she says.

Chikondi wants to become a nurse because of her good grades in science subjects. She explains that she decided to go back to school because she knew that education is the only solution to the problems that she is facing. “With education, I can stand on my own feet and give my child and family a better life,” says Chikondi.

First days back at school

Chikondi’s first days back in class were difficult. Fellow students mocked her and called her all types of names because she has a child. Regardless of this, Chikondi held her head high and promised herself that she was not going to give in to the name calling. She was focused on working hard in class.

“I am very thankful for Spotlight Initiative because they have lessened my burden in terms school necessities. I encourage fellow girls to pick up themselves and go back to school because education is a solution to many problems. Do not give up on your dreams. With the Spotlight scholarship, I can already see my dream of becoming a nurse come true. I have no intention to drop out of school,” she said.

Chikondi also has a message for parents who push for their daughters to get married early.

“Girls belong to the classroom not in marriage. No one should look down on girls. They are equal to boys and you never know which of children will look after you. It could be the girl child,” she describes. “They could also be lucky like me to get a scholarship like the one I have.”

At Chikondi’s school 17 girls are beneficiaries of the initiative.  The schools headteacher, Mr. Abel Neba applauded the European Union (EU) and the United Nations for the initiative which he says will go a long way easing some of the challenges many students face.

He however, asked if the initiative could cater for more boarding facilities as many students walk long distances. “If the students stay at school, it will help them focus on their education and school work. It will also take them away from toxic communities that may have a bad influence on the girls,” Mr. Neba explains.

Support from the European Union and the United Nations

The Spotlight Initiative is a United Nations Joint Programme with UNICEF, UN Women, UNFPA and UNDP with funding from the EU. In partnership with the Malawi Government, the programme seeks to eliminate violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and harmful practices.

Within the Spotlight Initiative, scholarships are provided to girls who have been rescued from early marriages, early pregnancies, gender-based violence and underprivileged children who are willing to go back to school. Currently the project targets six districts of Dowa, Nkhatabay, Mchinji, Chikwawa, Ntchisi and Nsanje.

“Through the Spotlight Initiative we hope to address the harmful social norms and practices that drive and normalize violence against women and girls. We are also removing financial barriers to education, giving girls like Chikondi an opportunity to stay and excel in school. says UNICEF Malawi Chief of Education and Adolescents, Kimanzi Muthengi. “If they are well educated, this offers tremendous hope to breaking the cycle of poverty especially for women.”

N.B

To ensure holistic support to the survivors of violence, UNICEF will continue to work with its partners to ensure affected girls have access to psycho-social and other services, and alleged perpetrators face justice.

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