As a Sexual Violence Survivor, Maureen Phiri is determined to Protect and Empower Girls


Malawi, Lilongwe

When she was selected to attend an international health conference in 2015, Maureen Phiri was excited.

She was only 19 at the time and, unlike most girls her age, Maureen had been passionately advocating for girls’ rights, particularly in sexual and reproductive health and peer education.

To her, participating in the 18th International Conference on Aids and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Zimbabwe was a great opportunity to build her skills and knowledge in her advocacy work.

However, on the second day of the conference, which started on November 29, 2015, Maureen’s excitement and hope turned to fear, confusion and disappointment when a man she looked up to, one she considered an ally in the fight for girls rights, violated her.

It all began with an exchange of phone numbers along the corridors of the conference halls, where the unsuspecting young girl met the executive member of an organisation that funded the organisation she worked for at the time as a volunteer peer educator.

Image by FlitsArt from Pixabay.

Recalls Maureen: “I thought he was a good and decent man. He spoke highly of me and congratulated me for making it to the conference. He got my number and later called to meet me after the session.”

But when she entered his hotel room, Maureen sensed that something was not right. “He embraced me tightly while running his hands down my hips. I became scared and turned around to leave. But the man pushed me onto the bed and forced himself on top of me.”

Maureen remembers feeling helpless. She tried to scream but says the man covered her mouth with his hand.

“I was devastated. I did not expect a man whose job was to advocate for girls rights to treat me in that manner, let alone while attending such a conference.”

Judged by society

From the room, Maureen rushed straight to her two Malawian friends who were also participating in the conference and told them her ordeal.

But instead of supporting and sympathizing with her, the two judged her.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

“They asked why I went to his room in the first place, insinuating that I wanted it. That is when I decided not to talk about the issue anymore. I did not even report it to authorities because I felt everyone would be judging me,” explained Maureen.

And when she returned home from the conference, she could not go back to her volunteer job as she could not face the man again.

Taking up the fight

It did not take long before Maureen decided she could still do more to protect the girl child. She joined the Ndiulula (Chichewa for Speak Out) Campaign spearheaded by the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare with funding from ActionAid Malawi.

The campaign employs a digital-driven approach to provide support to victims to use social networks to report abuse and get help.

Through the campaign, women and girls are encouraged to speak out against sexual abuse in institutions of higher learning and in the workplace. It also strives to protect the girl child from various forms of abuses.

Advocate Maureen Phiri speaks against gender-based violence in a past event. Photo Courtesy.

Says Maureen: “I believe naming and shaming is the best option to stop men from abusing girls and women. Like many others who have experienced abuse, I feel the justice system sometimes fails us. I later gathered courage to report my predicament but Police said my evidence would be difficult to present in court after such a long period of time.”

She feels society has in a way accepted that ‘men act like that’ and treat abuse as a normal part of life.

“It is my plea that governments become vigilant enough in protecting the girl child. I want to see an end to these abuses. We have laws yes, but they are not being fully utilised,” she explains.

During the launch of the Ndiulula Campaign in December 2018, Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Cecilia Chazama said society perception on issues of Gender Based Violence has led to silence on the part of the victims, with research findings indicating that 96 percent of gender-based violence (GBV) victims do not report their cases.

According to the 2016 Malawi Demographic Health Survey (MDHS) report, 41 percent of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence, and about 96 percent of sexual harassment cases are perpetrated by men in positions of power.

Sophia Nthenda of Malawi’s NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN), says GBV at the workplace, including in domestic work, the political sphere, women working as guards, young girls working as interns, market women and in schools—where girls face sexual intimidation by fellow students and lecturers—remains a major challenge which needs to be urgently dealt with.

She called for the scaling up in efforts in popularising gender-related laws such as the Gender Equality Act and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and Marriage and Divorce Act.

On his part, Malawi Congress of Trade Union (MCTU) president Luther Mambala says almost 30 percent of cases handled by the union are GBV-related.

Without excluding men as victims of GBV, Mambala hinted that most of the victims are women.

These figures are a stain on efforts to promote equality as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) number five which calls for reduced inequalities and equal opportunities for everyone to thrive.

Maureen is comforted by Cecila Chazama, Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare and UN Women Malawi Representative, Ms. Clara Anyangwe in a past event. Photo Courtesy. <br /><br />

Hope in the campaign

Maureen has hope that the Ndiulula Campaign will be a success and empower more girls and women to speak out against abuse, thereby reducing cases of GBV.

What is more, at 23, Maureen is already planning to open her own organisation that will promote the rights of the girl child, equip them with life skills and encourage them to stand up for their rights as she try to make the world a better place for all.

And she vows to continue telling her story until she achieves her goal!

Editor's Note: This report was made possible through a reporting grant from the Women in Media Network (WIMN).