Muted cry of stepdaughters of Dowa

Jessica – a 14-year-old Standard 5 pupil at one of the public schools in Traditional Authority (T/A) Msakambewa in Dowa – is torn apart.

Jessica, whose real name we have concealed on ethical grounds, wants to be a teacher when she completes her education.

But now she faces a shattered future because her 45-year-old stepfather – whom she trusted and was supposed to protect her from preying and lustful men – is now demanding sex from her as a precondition for him to continue supporting her education.

Nthache–Stepdaughters are facing serious abuses in the hands of stepfathers–Photos by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times (1)

He has vowed that he will not support her education unless she yields to his demand.

However, the girl thinks it is not proper for her to engage in a sexual relationship with the man who married her biological mother. The girl is now standing between a rock and a hard place.

“I have severally rejected his advances on me. I don’t think by accepting to sleep with him I would be solving my problems or creating even more,” said Jessica in an interview on Thursday last week.

Clara Nthache of Jonasi Village in T/A Mponela disclosed that cases of stepfathers demanding sex from their stepdaughters are quite common in Dowa.

Nthache made the sentiments during an interface meeting the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) organized for stakeholders to brainstorm on practical mechanisms for ending violence against women and girls.

With support from UN Women through the Spotlight Initiative, NICE is implementing a project titled ‘Elimination of Violence Against Women & Girls through Trasformative Civic Education’.

Among others, NICE is working with local governance structures such as women fora, youth clubs, Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN), the clergy and political leaders to address societal attitudes and social norms, which put women and girls at lower pedestal level and has led them to over-depend on men.

In her contribution during an interface meeting held at T/A Mponela’s Headquarters last Thursday, Nthache, who is an executive member of MEGEN, disclosed that step daughters suffer various forms of abuse in the hands of their stepfathers.

“Most of the stepfathers demand that they should be sleeping with both the mother and her daughters from her previous relationships. Otherwise, they would chase the stepdaughters away,” she said.

Nthache added that some men have made this as a precondition for them to maintain their support for children from their wives’ previous relationships.

“And out of desperation, some women have ended up offering their daughters for sex with their husbands. This practice is very common in Dowa and something needs to be done to stop the abuse step daughters are suffering,” she narrated.

T/A Mponela said this is just one form of the abuses step daughters face in the district.

But the chief said it is not easy for traditional leaders to stamp their authority to end the vice ‘because some of these practices mostly happen in secret’.

“I believe with the coming in of this project, we should be able to find the way out,” said Mponela.

In one of her recent articles, marriage counsellor Christine Giancarlo observes that the welfare and physical wellbeing of the children always come last when parents separate and divorce.

Giancarlo says stepchildren suffer various forms of abuse, including sexual harassment, rape, indecent assault and verbal attacks from their stepparents.

NICE Spotlight Initiative project coordinator Boniface Phiri said it is against this background that NICE initiated the project to complement local and national efforts to address the vice.

Phiri disclosed that his organization has employed various approaches such as community mobilization; raising awareness through media efforts (both social and traditional); working with men; strengthening community institutions; supporting existing women movements and bridging the gap with local authorities.

“So, the response from our working with these structures has been encouraging. These are people who have been doing this for a long time and we are just building on their experiences. We are simply bringing to them transformative civic education in the fight against violence against women and girls,” he said.

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