Lifting the Roof: How a New Effort Could Change Everything for Girls in Malawi

The man who raped Maureen was a friend of her father’s.

At the age of 11, she had left her home to work as a “house girl” for this family friend. In return, he purchased food for her family and paid Maureen’s school fees, which can be a barrier to education for girls in Malawi.
“We used to call him our uncle because of the good relationship they had,” the young Malawian woman said last year.

But then everything went wrong.

Ambassador Russell talks with Maureen, a young activist from Malawi, at an event hosted by Together For Girls on the sidelines of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2016. [Photo courtesy of Together for Girls]

“His wife went out for a night, and that night he raped me,” Maureen said. “I didn’t tell anyone. I had no one to talk to.”

Maureen finally spoke up about what happened after seeing a presentation about child abuse. After organizers of the presentation helped her access post-rape care, however, Maureen’s nightmare seemed to get worse instead of better. The man who raped her had given her HIV/AIDs.

In Malawi, HIV is a major problem -- 10 percent of the population has the disease  --  and it’s made worse by stigma. For Maureen, discrimination from her family and her community derailed her life.

Fortunately, she also continued to learn about the disease, and the more she learned, the more she felt she had to say something.
“There’s been too much silence,” she said.

Today, Maureen is an activist in Malawi. She speaks out against gender-based violence and tells HIV-positive young people to find a friend to confide in. She encourages parents to develop strong relationships with their children and advocates for policymakers to expand access to post-rape care.

But her story also illustrates the many challenges facing adolescent girls in this sub-Saharan country. Far too many girls drop out of school, with abysmally low transition rates from primary to secondary. Gender-based violence and a crippling lack of access to health care  --  including sexual and reproductive services  -- can quickly shrink the potential of this age group.

These issues fuel Malawi’s high rates of teen pregnancy, early and forced marriage, poor health, and generational cycles of poverty.

This is not the future we dream of for Malawi’s adolescent girls, who hold so much promise to contribute to their country’s political, economic, and cultural progress.

A school motto in Malawi [State Department photo]

Education reduces the risk of early marriage for girls. It also reduces the lifetime risk of a woman’s contracting the HIV virus by nearly 40 percent.

But the problems girls face in staying in school, safe from violence, and HIV-free  --  as well as the connections between these issues  -- are difficult to address with a single program or initiative, particularly because they sit on a foundational cultural belief that girls are not as valuable as boys (an idea that is not unique to Malawi, to be sure).

The good news is that these beliefs are changing. In Malawi, traditional leaders are keepers of the customs that have undervalued girls. One leader, Senior Chief Theresa Kachindomoto, has annulled over 850 child unions in the past two years and worked to impose bylaws that prohibit child marriage.

She also leveraged support from churches, non-governmental organizations and community networks and lobbied Parliament to pass a new Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Law in 2015, which increased the legal minimum age of marriage to 18.

While there is still work to do, these are the Malawian-led strides from the community to national levels needed to make a difference for adolescent girls and young women like Maureen. And we are proud to support these efforts.

The U.S. government is leading a wide-ranging and groundbreaking effort to support girls with a comprehensive approach, focusing diplomatic efforts and foreign assistance programs on improving the systems that can make or break outcomes for adolescent girls: education, health, safety, and economic security.

USAID provides nearly $20 million to improve access to quality education and demonstrate the value of keeping girls in school. PEPFAR provides more than $32 million in support for comprehensive programs for adolescent girls. (This is part of PEPFAR’s $385 million DREAMS Partnership, which pursues solutions to address the structural drivers that increase girls’ HIV risk, including poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence and lack of education.) USDA has invested $7 million in school nutrition programs to ensure that girls are healthy and well-nourished. And the State Department will help the Government of Malawi steer their policies in a way that brings girls to the forefront, in addition to investing more than $6 million in programs that prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

We know that without the help of key partners, we can’t begin to address these problems. So we are building on existing coordination efforts with the Government of Malawi, traditional chiefs and religious leaders, and both local and international non-profit organizations. These stakeholders will play critical roles in strengthening our efforts and tackling the underlying gender norms that keep girls from finishing school, being financially independent, and living safe and healthy lives.

A mother’s group welcomes Ambassador Palmer to a secondary school in Malawi in April 2016. [State Department photo]

A Malawian proverb illustrates how our success relies on this collaboration: one head cannot lift a roof.

It’s our hope that, in partnership with so many others, we can raise the roof that has kept adolescent girls from reaching their full potential — and in doing so, make progress for the entire country.

About the Authors: Ambassador Virginia Palmer serves as the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi; Ambassador Deborah Birx is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global HIV and AIDS and Global Health Diplomacy; and Ambassador Cathy Russell is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in the Department's Foggy Bottom publication on

Ambassador Russell stands with students in Malawi in April 2016. [State Department photo]
January 18, 2017


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