Mercy Paundi, nurse
Mercy Paundi is Head Nurse at Mangochi District Hospital. The 31-year-old comes from the Yau tribe in southern Malawi, where very few girls finish primary, let alone secondary school because they often get pregnant and marry at a young age.
"In my community, you grow up with the idea that men go out to work and women take care of the household and the children. Because money is tight, many families prioritise their sons going to school over their daughters," explains Mercy.
"Comparatively few girls even start school - and many of those who do drop out early because they become pregnant at a young age." Mercy believes that the Yau community’s initiation rite is partially responsible for this trend. "During the ritual, boys and girls learn the importance of respecting older people: but they also learn about sex and are then encouraged to experiment with it themselves. This results in a higher percentage of teenage pregnancies in my community."
"Not everything about the ritual is bad," she insists. "It is good that we learn about respecting our elders, taking care of ourselves, and how to be a good mother or wife. But the passages about sex can be harmful if the young people don’t have access to additional information about their rights. So we need to maintain what's good about the ritual but also, in parallel, work to ensure that young people can make informed decisions."
The importance of open dialogue
Amref Health Africa’s ‘Stand Up For Adolescents’ project has provided a space where all members of the Yau community can openly discuss sex and relationships. "It is important that we go around the table with each separate group about these harmful parts: with the village chiefs, the religious leaders, the initiators of the rituals, the aunts who accompany girls during the ritual, and the parents," says Mercy.
"Otherwise they will not dare to talk freely. This is not a simple task that can be fixed in one night, but there are changes happening through these community dialogues."
"Never lose sight of your goal"
Mercy also believes that there are still too few role models for Yau girls growing up: "So few girls from my community finish their high school, go to college and find a good job afterwards," she says. Of the sixty pupils in her final year at primary school, there were only three other girls who, like her, went on to finish secondary school. "One now works at the Water Board, a second works as a prison director, the third is a teacher and I am a nurse," says Mercy with a proud smile. "When I was in high school, a former pupil who was now director of a university came in to give a speech. She told us that she had done her best, studied and read a lot, and because of that she had been able to pursue her dreams. She told us we could pursue our dreams, too: we just had to stay focused, fight hard, and never lose sight of our goal." Mercy says that having such a role model gave her the strength and inspiration to work hard and stay in school: "And it wasn’t easy, because I grew up in a village where other girls stopped school, became pregnant and married young."
Nowadays, the elementary school Mercy attended regularly invites her to talk to the female pupils. "Now I am that role model that tells them to work hard and that it is then possible to make their dreams come true," she says proudly.