Fran Mate, USPG Programmes Manager for Africa, reports on how the holistic mission of the Anglican Church in Malawi is helping to improve lives.
It started with the observation that girls were dropping out of school and a desire to do something about it. There was a clear gender divide between boys and girls, so the church started to focus its attention on those households where the girls were not in school.
The church found these households were typically the poorest in the community. This made sense: a household without food will keep their girls at home to do housework and look after young siblings, which frees up the parents to find work so they can buy food.
The church realised it was not enough to encourage girls to return to school; it was also necessary to ensure these families had food. This is a good example of why the church needs to be involved in holistic mission. Because all aspects of life and the community are interconnected, a multi-pronged approach is needed if lives are to be transformed.
Indeed, the picture is often even more complex. In one village, it was known that four schoolgirls were being sexually abused by their fathers.
At first, people did not know what to do. But, slowly, as the church engaged with the issues of poverty and girls’ education, people in the community started to think about the importance of standing up for girls’ rights. In one village the local chief made it a law that girls should go to school.
As a result, after feeling silenced for a long time, the women and girls felt safe enough to speak out about the abuse. The community gathered around their daughters to support them, and now the four fathers are in court.
Something is happening in these villages and it is wonderful to see. Communities are being transformed and this has persuaded Malawi’s bishops to expand this programme.
Bishop Alinafe Kalemba, of Southern Malawi Diocese, said: “This programme is life-giving, it is holistic, and it addresses the socio-economic needs of the people. It is empowering and giving hope to girls.”
It had long been known that gender is an issue, but awareness and understanding were faint. However, once the church start acting in this area, people started to take notice – they could see positive outcomes – and their awareness and understanding grew.
Network of local churches
The programme is run through the network of local Anglican churches, which extends right into the heart of the communities.
A set of criteria is used to identify which are the poorest households in the village, one of the factors being whether the children in that household are in school. Then a number of measures are put in place.
The households are encouraged to join farmers clubs that provide training in farming methods and seeds to plant. The farmers clubs also provide an opportunity for families to start saving or to borrow money to kick-start income-generation initiatives.
In addition, families are put in touch with the Ministry of Agriculture, which also provides training in farming techniques, such as how to make organic manure, which is less expensive than buying fertilizer and better for the environment.
And girls are provided with school materials and uniforms (without which they are not allowed in school) and teenage girls are given sanitary products.
The impact of all these measures has been immediate. Previously, girls were not completing primary school, and some felt compelled to marry early. As a result, they were dropping out of school. But, thanks to these interventions, girls are now staying in school.
Everyone is inspired! Communities are rallying around the girls, teachers encouraging the girls to stay in school, and mothers clubs have been set up to provide the girls with candid advice on dealing with day-to-day challenges.
One pleasing outcome is that local boys sometimes take on the role of protector by escorting girls home when it is dark to make sure they are safe.
I feel really encouraged that USPG is able to support the churches in this work. This is the holistic gospel in action! The church is helping families, not just through praying with them, but by providing practical support too. And everyone can see this happening.
The church got the programme started, but since it has been up and running the congregations and communities themselves have been finding ways to solve some of the problems they face. This work is making the Anglican Church more visible in Malawi. People are learning about the mission and compassion of the church and how the church is tackling issues of gender inequality and helping households to escape poverty.
In this article I have focused on poverty and girls’ education, but there are many more dimensions to this programme, which truly is holistic.
For example, the church is also spearheading environmental protection work, which is creating awareness about how global climate change is impacting on the local environment.
The ‘take home’ message is quite simple: ‘Stop cutting down trees. Plant trees instead.’