Activists on the move: how bicycles are changing lives in Malawi
MACHINGA, Malawi - Afiya Salanje, 47, has always been passionate about eliminating violence against women and girls. An activist for 10 years, he recently started working with Spotlight Initiative’s ‘Champions of Change’ programme, which promotes positive concepts of masculinity and engages men on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) through sensitization sessions, community dialogues and theatre that challenges harmful norms and behaviours. The programme also promotes access to information and services related to HIV-AIDS and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“Before receiving the bicycle, following up on cases and ensuring that they were completed was tough... I felt I needed to do more” - Afiya Salanje, Champion of Change
As a volunteer and chairperson for the Community Victim Support Unit (CVSU) - an organization that identifies and reports GBV, and provides services to survivors - he often has to travel long distances. Recently, Mr. Salanje has been able to step up his activism thanks to a new bicycle.
“Before receiving the bicycle, following up on cases and ensuring that they were completed was tough. I couldn’t visit families as much as I wanted and this never satisfied me. I felt I needed to do more,” explains Mr. Salanje.
Since receiving the bike in July, he has managed to visit 30 families per month - a big leap from his previous six families per month.
Activists on the move Mr. Salanje is one of the 255 people to receive a Spotlight Initiative-supported bicycle from the village committees in Machinga district. The bicycles aim to improve the mobility of GBV service providers, especially in remote regions where women and girls are often marginalized. The committees that received the bicycles include Mr. Salanje’s CVSU, community policing units and child protection committees. These committees assist in tracking child marriage and cases of sexual and gender-based violence, and offer maternal and child health services through mobile family planning services.
Mr. Salanje says he became an advocate against GBV after realizing that so many girls were being abused by the very men who were supposed to take care of them, mostly close relations.
“I am a member of the Village Development Committee (VDC), but I also sit at the Chief’s Council where I hear so many disturbing stories about abuse of adolescent girls in the village. I wanted to play a role in helping them and so I dedicated myself to this work,” explains Mr. Salanje.
Mr. Salanje says that he has already managed to prevent or end 17 child marriages since receiving the bicycle. He says the girls had planned to marry due to the economic pressures of COVID-19 — in times of crisis, families may seek to secure their daughters’ future or may not be able to afford to continue supporting them. In these cases, he will talk to girls and their guardians to explain that marriage under the age of 18 is against the law, and will link families with the village savings and loans group to ease financial pressure.
“Since I received the bicycle, I have visited the girls who are now back with their families... I encourage them to go back to school” - Mr. Salanje
“Since I received the bicycle, I have visited the girls who are now back with their families,” he says. “Some are pregnant and some have given birth. During each visit, I encourage them to go back to school.”
Increased monitoring, increased reporting Mr. Salanje says that the bicycles have also increased the demand for services among villagers, as people now feel empowered to report because they know that the volunteers will continue to visit them. “I often get calls from families to report cases [of GBV] and I make sure I visit them. I literally have no excuse - I have to reach out to them. Community-based organizations are recognizing us and reporting cases to us, too. It is motivating,” he says.
“I enjoy my work these days. Every morning at 8 a.m., I am on the road to visit families and follow up on cases. This bicycle has really eased my work.”
A total of 940 bicycles were handed over to the government for distribution in all six Initiative-supported districts of Malawi.
By Nomsa Taulo with additional information from Machinga District Information Office. Photo: Spotlight Initiative/Nelia Galeta.