Amina Wisiki, peer champion
Amina Wisiki is a 24-year-old social worker in Lulanga, southern Malawi. For the region's Yao tribe, child marriage and early sexual activity are commonplace - but Amina is committed to helping young people know how to keep themselves safe.
No more unwanted pregnancies
“I want to be a role model for other girls,” says 24-year-old Amina Wisiki, who lives in Lulanga, southern Malawi. “Many girls here get pregnant at a young age and then drop out of school. During labour, they often have all kinds of complications because their body is not yet fully grown. And often they end up as a single mother and have trouble taking care of themselves and their baby."
The Yao tribe, the largest tribe in the region, subscribes to some customs that can be harmful and confusing for young people. For example, all boys and girls must go through an initiation ritual in order to become adults. During this ritual, the children are regularly encouraged to have sex. “Two women showed us how people have sex with each other,” says Amina, who went through the ritual herself when she was 10. “Boys are also sometimes told to get rid of their sperm in a girl,” says the social worker, who believes that messages like this do not help in reducing teenage pregnancies. "These rituals make the children think they are ready for sex, but they have not learned anything about protecting themselves from pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."
Poverty also plays a role, according to Amina. “Many parents cannot provide their children with sufficient food and clothing. This makes girls sensitive to boys who offer them money, clothing, or phone credit,” she says, emphasising that in this region many boys become fishermen on the nearby Lake Malawi and after a good catch sometimes have a lot of money with which they try to seduce girls.
This makes Amina one of only a handful of girls in her community who finished high school. And this too was challenging. “The only secondary school is a four-hour bike ride from my house. As a young teenager I was forced to rent a small room near the school with two other girls. Boys and men in their thirties regularly bothered us, offered us gifts and money, but of course also wanted something in return.” Amina resisted the temptations, but she was one of few.
“Fortunately, I had strict parents who always motivated me to finish school,” she continues. "With a diploma I could look for a job so that I would not have to depend on fishing, which is very dependent on the weather."
Training with Amref
When Amref Health Africa was looking for a social worker in her region, Amina did not hesitate to apply. “I would love to convince other girls to hold off on getting married and getting pregnant,” she says, in the hope that more and more girls in her region will choose to finish school. “I really hope that in the future our region will no longer have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in our country,” says the social worker. “If we want to develop our region, we really have to keep girls in school,” says Amina.
Amina received various training through Amref Health Africa, including training on reproductive health care, and comprehensive sexual education – including lessons on the physical changes of boys and girls during puberty; gender roles; rites of passage; the rights of girls and boys; and STDs.
As a social worker, Amina tries in various ways to keep as many children in school as possible and to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies and child marriage in her community. “When I hear that parents are planning to marry off their daughter, I visit the family and explain to the parents that this is not allowed by law. If they still go ahead with it, I will call in Child Care and Protection to stop child marriage.”
Amina also speaks about children's rights and the risks of teenage pregnancy at community meetings with the tribal elder or religious leaders. She goes to schools and youth clubs to educate about contraceptives and educate the students about their rights. "And when I hear that a student has become pregnant, I visit the family to convince the parents to send the girl back to school after the birth."
"The first time I spoke to a group of girls about these kinds of topics, I was very nervous," admits Amina. “I felt like no one was listening,” she laughs. "But nowadays I feel relaxed and I notice that more and more young people come to me for advice or if they have a problem." The 24-year-old believes it is very important that she is young and from the same community: "This makes the threshold much lower for young people to approach me if they want advice or, for example, are at risk of being married off."
I have high hopes that, in the future, my entire community will stop marrying off young girls.
Amina has been successful in her work. “Last year I convinced four girls to give up getting married and go back to school,” she says. "I am incredibly proud of this and have high hopes that, in the future, my entire community will stop marrying off young girls."
“I feel that my work is very important,” she says. “Previously, many young people, for example, thought that contraceptives were only for married people and that it would make you sterile,” says the social worker. “By talking to the young people, I can debunk these taboos and explain how they actually work. As a result, more and more young people are now coming to me to make these contraceptives accessible.”
The boys and girls also learn through her about the risks of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. "And they learn that they have a choice: that they can say no."
Images © Jeroen van Loon, 2019.
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