21 February 2017

Malawi: Training brings change

In countries with high unemployment rates, vocational training and entrepreneurship skills can be an important alternative to formal employment. Photographer: Jens Honoré

The SOS Vocational Training Centre in Lilongwe, Malawi, has been working with Theatre for a Change, an NGO with the goal of empowering vulnerable and marginalised groups. The partnership provides vocational training for sexually exploited girls and young women, giving them the opportunity to have an alternative and independent way to earn a living.

To protect the privacy of participants, the following are depictions of what two young women experienced as former sex workers in Malawi.

Leticia, 18, describes her story as a ‘bitter’ one.

“My friends and I were real sex workers. At a very young age, I ran away from my parents and stayed for one full year without contacting them. I used to meet different men at odd places, especially during the night, and have sex with them for money, at times for as little as $2,” said Leticia.

To her, this was not just a game for money, but for power and sustainability. She never stayed at one place. She would go wherever she had a chance to meet men with money and potential. Most of her usual customers were tobacco sellers during the harvesting and tobacco-selling season. At that time, she thought it was her only way of being useful and of making money to support herself.

Trapped in a dangerous life

Joana, Leticia’s 19-year-old friend, felt trapped in a business she despised. To her, it was part of the struggle women with few options have to go through to earn a living. She recalls what she experienced at the hands of brutal and demeaning 'clients'.

 
The vocational training centre in Lilongwe offers a range of courses such as sewing classes and textile design. Photo: Hien Doan
“One day, a client beat me up, and treated me in despicable ways for no apparent reason. One night, another man teased me on how poor my services were and knifed me in the face without even paying.” As Joana shared this experience, she touched a huge scar on her cheek, sobbing uncontrollably.

When the two young women meet now, they have something joyful to talk about – how their lives have changed for the better through their studies at the Vocational Training Center (VTC).

“The programme has been a big game changer for us. It has changed us from being ‘bad girls’, ostracised by our communities, to fully trained tailors, designers and chefs. That is an achievement,” said Joana, who has trained to become a chef.

New perspectives

When they meet in their circles, Leticia and Joana talk about their past and share their experiences with others as a way of easing their emotions. It helps them to shift from disbelief, confusion, resentment and deep sadness to a lighter, more jovial and hopeful mood.

“Unlike in the past, when our conversations were dominated with issues of fun, our conversations these days are mostly dominated by how we can establish our businesses, where we can access start-up capital and where we can find markets for our goods,” said Joanna.

Leticia adds that she is doing what she has always wanted to do – and she is happy.

“Today, I can confidentially say I am a tailor and a designer. I can sew clothes, sell them and make my own money, earning a decent living. It is such a wonderful thing to be useful and productive in society. I am proud of myself,” said Leticia.

Vocational training as a new chance

“SOS Children’s Villages believes that every child and young person should have the right to quality care and opportunities,” said Ken Nkhonjera, VTC principal. “We also realise that some professions, like sex work, threatens the provision of quality care to children as the sex workers are either wandering about, leaving their children unattended, or exposing their children to this life, leaving children in need of alternative care.”
 

Vocational Training Centre in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Turid Weisser
SOS Children’s Villages has teamed up with the NGO Theatre for a Change to provide vocational training to help young sex workers to find other ways of sustaining themselves and their children. Until now, nearly 30 girls who were sexually exploited have received training in fashion and design, carpentry and business management through this partnership.

“This was a great motivation for us to quickly come up with a tailor-made programme specifically for this group. This group was allowed to bring their children to class to demonstrate to them that we are ready to demystify the norms of class etiquettes in Malawi for the sake of the children,” said Mr Nkhonjera.

He added that parents and the communities should be ready to support these young women and accept them as contributing members of their societies. Ostracising them undermines all the efforts in place to bring change to their lives and that of their children.

“At the VTC, we are determined to change the thinking around vocational skills, as they are the only viable option in these times when young people hardly get employment. By focusing on vocational skills coupled with entrepreneurship, our hope is that the youth will not wait for formal employment,” said Mr Nkhonjera.  Rather, he encourages participants in the programme to create their own jobs so they can earn a living.

“We are most excited about this partnership and, as a way forward, we will be exploring ways of upscaling this initiative. We are geared at creating chances for the youth, especially those exploited like these young ladies, as they are more vulnerable,” said Mr Nkhonjera.

Read more about our work in Malawi