Avery Tomaso l Palladium - Dec 07 2023
PROPEL Health is Using Policy to Fight Gender-Based Violence and Child Marriage in Malawi

Weston Chafunya, a youth champion, inside a studio for Lilanguka Community Radio Station, Mangochi, Malawi. Photo: Malumbo Simwaka/Health Policy Plus.

Malawi has the highest rate of child marriage in the world. What’s more, one in five Malawian women have experienced sexual violence, and 42% of girls experience physical violence before the age of 18. This violence is not only directly harmful to women and girls, but also to their communities and the country overall – underscoring the deep need for laws and education to protect them.

November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, kicked off ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’ (GBV). PROPEL Health, a USAID-funded project that facilitates access to more equitable and sustainable health services, has been working in Malawi to provide legislation and increase access to education to combat both child marriage and GBV.

From Taskforce to Strategy to Action

In 2015, Malawi’s Ministry of Gender developed a National Taskforce on Ending Child Marriage, but due to a lack of funding, the government representatives, civil society and faith-based organisations, and development partners didn’t meet regularly. PROPEL Health supported the Ministry of Gender to start meetings again and as a result, the Taskforce developed terms of reference for the review of the National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage (2018-2023). The Strategy aims to reduce child marriage from 42% to 22%.

PROPEL Health’s Jessie Kazembe acts as a Technical Advisor in gender for the Malawi activities and is on the team working on reviving the National Strategy. She says that the funding issue and bringing the stakeholders together were the biggest challenges when it came to the development of the Strategy.

“You need to have money to convene a meeting” she says, “so with funding limitations it was problematic to engage stakeholders to get each one’s perspective.” With that knowledge, the team established financing mechanisms to ensure that the Taskforce can continue to meet and work.

The biggest success in Kazembe’s eyes has to do with the sustainability of the program. PROPEL Health has set up a “rotation in terms of support” for subsequent meetings of the Taskforce, so that going forward, there is always going to be a partner in place organising the gatherings.

According to Dezio Macheso, PROPEL Health Technical Advisor in youth and adolescent girls and young women, another challenge is coordination between groups and gathering the data. Because the methods of data collection are not uniform, “it’s difficult to get available data to tell us about the state of child marriages in Malawi,” says Macheso.

Additionally, he adds that there is weak collaboration between sectors, but the rehabilitation of the Taskforce will allow for greater and more routine government oversight and coordination between partners.

Heard it on the Radio

Along with work at the policy level, PROPEL Health is also supporting, developing, and enhancing community radio programming that will combat gender-based violence and child, early, and forced marriage, and increase access to mental health services. That work has included developing curriculum bulletins to be disseminated and organising youth radio listening clubs to ensure that the right information is shared about these critical issues.

Here, the team partners with Developing Radio Partners (DRP), which has worked in Malawi since 2015 developing curriculum bulletins on topics like gender-based violence, early marriage, and mental health. These bulletins are then used by youth radio journalists during their programs as a way to share accurate information and advocacy messages to their listeners.

According to Charles Rice, DRP’s President and Chief Executive Officer, “the weekly bulletin is the core of everything. This is where the whole idea for the weekly radio program comes from.” Rice explains that every month, there is a different theme that’s tackled with specific programming related to that broader idea each week. The bulletins provide youth journalists with the background information they need to produce their programs, and DRP provides the support they need throughout the process.

As with the Taskforce, sustainability and accountability are central to the radio programmes as well. There are three components, explains Rice: “Understanding the story, actually producing the story, and then doing constant follow up.”

DRP plays a role in supporting and following along with the youth journalists themselves, but by teaching these youth how to ask the right questions and produce programming with an advantageous angle, local leaders and politicians are also able to be held accountable to their past promises. Sustainability is also built in by training mentors who are more permanent radio station staff members that will provide what Rice calls the “institutional memory” that will allow this type of programming to thrive long after PROPEL Health is complete.

Macheso emphasises the importance of tapping into the youth population to make change in Malawi. Youth make up a substantial part of the population of the country, which “necessitates more investments, more focus on this population” says Macheso. More than ever, they are “mainstreaming youth, getting youth, and prioritising youth” in their work, and are already seeing the results of doing so.

For Rice, the most rewarding part of this work is knowing the impact its making. “I’ve watched these stations and these young people grow over the last eight to ten years,” Rice explains. “I think the most rewarding thing is knowing that these people are role models for other young people in their community because they can see a life not being forced into a child marriage.”

Funded by USAID, PROPEL Health’s core team is led by Palladium and includes the African Economic Research Consortium, Avenir Health, Population Reference Bureau, RTI International, Samasha Medical Foundation, and the White Ribbon Alliance. Learn more about PROPEL Health