Women find their voice through radio
he FM radio is lovingly unwrapped from its chitenje cloth. The women erupt into song, carefully recording it using the small handheld device.
Then one of them introduces the topic for the day - child abuse. One by one, the women have their say, discussing an issue that has increasingly worried them over the last few months.
The group of 25 women and one man are part of several radio listeners' clubs that UNICEF supports as part of the 'Community on Air' initiative. They meet in the afternoon several times a week to listen to programmes broadcast on Dzimwe Community Radio, which broadcasts from Mangochi district on the shores of Lake Malawi. The station broadcasts over a 100km radius to an estimated audience of 1.3 million listeners.
The women of the Sambwi I Village Listeners' Club have development of their village in their sights. After each broadcast, they discuss what they have heard - bulletins on tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS, malnutrition and other topical issues like children's rights. The idea is to identify problems in their community and come up with simple, low-cost solutions.
The part they really look forward to is where they record their own insert and the tape is collected by community journalists who will broadcast what they have to say. The station was initially supported by UNESCO but UNICEF has since stepped in by providing studio equipment, bicycles, and furniture. “I have been part of this group since it was formed in 2000,” says the club's secretary, Fallesi Mbera. “It has been part of my life. I have learnt a lot through our discussions, how to discuss in groups, and using my skills to share these messages with other villagers.”
Mbera says in the past, the group was not taken seriously in the village and its voice was not recognised. But now, the group is heard throughout the village and they are able to influence decisions.
Through the recorded discussions, Mbera says the club has managed to put the village on the map. People in other districts can follow what is happening in the village and what women are doing to improve their lives and those of their children.
“They know that we have messages on breastfeeding and hand-washing and that we do not let our young children sit idle at home when it is school time,” she enthuses. “You cannot listen to messages on radio and teach others and then go out and do the opposite, it is not possible.
“We never used to allow our daughters to go to school – people rather opted to educate a boy than a girl. But we have talked about these matters and we can see it's important,” says the divorced mother of four.
She says that through the programme, club members have been educated on the signs and symptoms of common diseases that afflict children and to quickly call for medical attention.
Fifty-two year-old Samson Milanzi, the only man in the group, says the club gatherings have become a daily part of his life. He doesn't think his gender is an issue.
“When I am with the group, I don't see them as women. They are my friends and I learn from them. I think men who think it is useless to gather in groups and listen to the radio together should come to me and I will tell them, 'you are missing a lot'.”
The father of five says he has acquired skills on how to counsel his children and to be a supporting partner to his wife, who is also a member of the group.
“As a husband, I have learnt to work with women while sharing roles. I understand women better and the challenges they face. I am also able to improve the situation in my house because of this knowledge.”