In March 2016 Lauren Conway from Coláiste Éinde, Galway and Jane Oyenuga from Loreto Secondary School, Kilkenny were the joint winners of the second ActionAid Ireland SpeechWriting Competition.

Open to every secondary school in Ireland, ActionAid’s speech writing competition received entries from over 50 schools in 2015. Ten finalists were chosen to deliver their speech at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Lauren and Jane wowed the panel of judges, including young-adult novelist Louise O’Neill, by showing a solid understanding of women’s rights when delivering their impressive and well-crafted speeches.

The winning prize was a trip to Malawi, accompanied by their teacher, to see how ActionAid is changing the lives of women and communities, with the support of Irish Aid. Malawi is a small landlocked nation in southern Africa and one of the worlds’ poorest countries. Poverty rates, malnutrition, and mortality rates remain high, as does violence against women – the focus of ActionAid’s women’s right programme. In August, the girls travelled with their teachers to the northern district of Rumphi to see this programme in action. In the northern region of Malawi, women leave their home place once they are married, to live among their husband’s family and neighbours. This isolates them and gives them nowhere to turn if the relationship is violent. Very few women are allowed to work or even socialise outside the home. Within traditional marriages polygamy still occurs. Women leaders in the community are rare. Women are often seen as incapable of leading, not only by the men in the villages but also by the women themselves. However, change is taking place. ActionAid is working with local groups of women like the Rumphi Women’s Forum to transform communities and women’s lives. The forum works voluntarily to; build awareness of women’s rights, provide counselling services for victims of violence, settle minor domestic disputes and seek justice for victims of abuse through working with other local groups and arrange skills trainings for local women. ‘Meeting the women’s forum was so interesting’, said Jane ‘it was great to see how the magistrate, the hospital and the women all work together to create real change.’ The Forum follows ActionAid’s REFLECT approach to community development. People are encouraged to learn from each other, to reflect and find solutions for their own daily struggles. One key focus, for example, is to ensure all in the community become literate – the visiting schoolgirls witnessed two of the older women in the community write their names with pride, having recently learned how. The Women’s Forum has also set up village savings and loans groups as a way for women to start small businesses and to help fund their children’s education. Lauren and Jane saw the impact of this work when they visited the village of Njikula. Welcomed by the entire village, the girls and their teachers were treated to a moving and powerful song about the experiences of the women and the very real need for the women’s rights programme. Local women spoke of the violence and isolation they experienced before taking part in the village forum and REFLECT Circles. Beatrice Kalua, 35, said that her husband had been polygamous and unsupportive of her and her three children, while at the same time not allowing her to work or socialise outside of the home. At first her husband would not let her attend the REFLECT Circle, but local facilitators met him and changed his mind. The group has helped Beatrice to reflect, talk through and take action on the problems in her life. In October 2014 she and her husband became legally married and he is no longer polygamous. Beatrice has started a small business selling fish and bananas, and now has her own independent income, ensuring her children will never do without again. In her own words, she has been ‘living a happy life since then.’ Galway student Lauren was particularly struck by the young women that she met: ‘one young woman, Febi, had a child young and was going back to school. She was so brave and open talking about her situation – the girls and women have such strength.’ The Women’s Forum has also targeted the most violent men in the communities to teach them about women’s rights and involve them in their work to end violence. The group now call themselves “Real Men” and aim to encourage all men in the village to respect women and give up violence against them. The students met with a group of men who told them how the training had improved their relationships with their wives and families. Luka Mkandawire, a young married man and father, discussed his wife’s new business and how he has become far more open with his children. Luka explained that ActionAid’s training helped him move away from some of the old traditions, ‘youngmen aremore open to change as they can look at the past, present and future. Looking at the challenges ahead such as money and climate change, they know they can’t live by the traditions of the past. They need to change themselves.’

ActionAid MalawiActionAid is bringing about this change. Chiza Gondwe, Deputy Chair of the Rumphi Women’s Forum became one of the first female village chiefs in the district. Quietly dignified, she told us that the role had been suggested to her previously, but she never believed that a woman could be head of a village until she received training on women’s leadership from ActionAid. She has since been made group village head, overseeing the chiefs in 17 villages. A fitting leader for a changing community. You can be part of this change by taking part in ActionAid’s SpeechWriting Competition! The third ActionAid SpeechWriting Competition will be open to all secondary students aged 14 to 17 from early October, and two winners will have the opportunity to visit and experience an ActionAid programme.