By Joan Iyiola

Grace Mathanga is a tall, captivating woman, in her early 40s. Despite the early hour of the morning she is drawing in a crowd; one turns to two, two quickly into thirty. Young women are on their feet, following her lead, discussing practical ways for asserting their rights, sharing stories of the men they work with, learning the day-to-day navigation of using female condoms the outcome of their HIV tests.

Grace, Nurse Bettie and Promise are from Theatre for a Change (TfaC), a charity focused on female empowerment through the promotion of sexual and reproductive health. We are in Kauma, a village just outside Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, with our Mobile Health Clinic ‘Tilipo’. This village has been identified as a hot spot for sex workers; subjects of the many men that travel through the area.

Most of the women I meet cite relationship breakdown as the key reason for entering sex work. These women will continue to fight deep rooted gender inequality for the rest of their lives, but it’s amazing to see the power that is given back to them through community action. Theatre techniques are employed to help the women change the story they find themselves in – Theatre for a Change uses Touch Tag improvisation, based on Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, to give participants the chance to make practical changes to key relationship in their lives.

The women look up to Grace with gratitude as she hands them each 90 condoms. Grace herself is HIV Positive and her experiences now embolden her with clarity, purpose and leadership. I am in awe. We have seen a collection of formidable women like this across Africa from Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, to Leymah Gbowee, and Grace Mathanga stands with them.

I meet Esther a couple of days later at a Community Child Protection Team training. Esther is 16 and she has just finished working on building a presentation for the room with representatives of the police, religious leadership and bar owners. This project ‘Tingathe’, which means ‘we can do it’ brings together community figures and encourages them to work as an ensemble.

From the age of 6, Esther was left to fend for herself and recruited 5 ‘boyfriends’ to collectively fund her first year of school. Through TfaC’s highly participatory work, Esther finds self-confidence to explain where the sexually exploited, like herself, find they are most at risk and how the community can help.

The room falls silent. Esther shines. She doesn’t know it yet but she’s a leader in the making.

TfaC’s unique theatre-based methodology provides tangible hope and I experience this later the same day, when I meet some more wonder women: Eneless Gunde, Annesi Linje, and Zione Kwenda. All are beneficiaries of the behaviour change programme through TfaC, and former sex workers. ‘I feel that the origin of sex work is poverty, it is never a choice’ Eneless tells me. Sex workers have the highest rate of HIV prevalence over any other professional group in Malawi (70.7% NAC 2009). The second highest group is the police. The women’s facilitation work has seen them mobilise the police, the army and peer groups of women like themselves. Through using devised performance as advocacy, these women are demanding institutional change.

The women invite me into the Sex Workers’ Project ‘Tithandizane’. Here 40+ sex workers attend three sessions a week for three months. The facilitator employs Augusto Boal’s techniques, there’s a focus ball, and Touch Tag. Their eyes never leave her. She is their mother and comrade, because she is one of them. This is no easy task, these young women are vulnerable and need to earn a living and it takes nothing less than a compelling force to keep them away from the demands of their clients. Like the best organic theatre making, it begins with games, song and improvisation as the women develop a new assertiveness through voice, body and space. As they progress through the programme they begin to change the attitudes of their community (and male clients) through interactive theatre, and it’s a resonating piece of art.

Limba mtima posintha zinthu. This means ‘be bold for change’ in Chichewa. Within the safe spaces created by TfaC, female voices are encouraged to be loud and they soar through the workshops and out onto the streets.

In a time of disheartening worldwide leaders, the leadership here is immense: unshakeable and joyful; a firmly female future brews. I recall the Liberian women captured in Danai Gurira’s astonishing Eclipsed, and I see each and every one, three times over. It’s a reminder – these girls and women are not as voiceless as we might think. The sound is cacophonous, and it’s time we all started listening to it.


International Women’s Day 2017

In celebration of International Women’s Day we asked our team in Malawi to show us what it means to #BeBoldForChange.

The WODA team are being bold and are taking the lead in their communities to be the change they want to see. For more about their work click here.

For more information on International Women’s Day or to see ways you can be #BeBoldForChange check out the IWD website.