Taking the Power Within and Crossing the Line: Reflections from JASS in Malawi

Hope Chigudu shares reflections about building women’s voice in Malawi and powerful stories of the ways in which grassroots women internalize the power framework and use it to challenge, resist and rebel against various forms of oppression and violence in their own lives and, literally, Cross the Line.
Every human being has the capacity to rebel and transgress, to cross the line of oppression but usually a catalyst is required to invoke and politicize the spirit of rebellion. JASS might not be the catalyst but it provides the tools that act as a stimulus, an awareness of the need for change. It also provides a safe space where critical thinking can be brought to bear on the individual environment. With political awareness each woman crosses her own line when she is ready to do so (lines of oppression and exploitation, of what is acceptable or what is not). No individual human being can cross the critical line for another. – Hope Chigudu
 Shredding human dignity: *Sarah’s story (as told in her own words)
 
I had known my husband’s temper when we got married. He’d sworn he could control it, and he actually had—for a while. However once in a while he would forget to control himself and hit me hard. I had run away from him many times, but he was very good at bringing me back. On this fateful night, he hit me so badly that I lost four teeth; he terrorized, wounded, traumatized and tortured me. He hit me because I had gone to a local clinic and tested HIV positive. He claimed that I was sleeping around and hence my status. I [had] married at the age of 16 and never had sex with any other man, surely he must have known about that.
 
I ran away, and ran and ran until I saw stars floating in front of my eyes, expecting at any second to be hit from the back by either him or a car. I ran until I couldn’t—until my legs twisted under me. I sat down under a tree with my torso bobbing back and forth as I sucked at the thin air. I could not go any further. In between huffing and puffing, trying to listen, I closed my eyes. Everything went dark for a while, and when the light came back it was the sun, pink and weak, flaming on the side of the mountain. It was dawn.
 
Where should I go? I chose to face the indignity of seeking shelter at my parent’s home against my and their will. They had made it clear that no matter what happened I was to stay in my marriage. It was clear I was unwelcome at home but surely, even if we are forced to accept someone against their will, should we push them away, ignore them the way I was ignored?
 
The reception from my brothers was shocking. They feared I would share their little land for my survival. They made my life miserable. I felt there was no reason for having been born into this world. Every time I saw any of them, I tried to be as invisible as possible. I always lowered my glance as I walked by any of them. I was treated as unwanted clutter and an undesirable person around the house; not only is an undesired person not wanted where she is, but while she’s there she’s also not easily forgotten, so there was no place for me, not even in the trash-heap. In my own father’s house, my brothers did not want to give me a corner in which an unwanted object might lie.
 
One day, I gathered the courage to go to an organization that works in our area on issues of HIV and AIDS but the officials received me with prejudice and condescension. I did not go back. I packed my bags and went to town to stay with a friend. It’s this friend who introduced me to the world of sex work. I was forced by my condition into sex work. With limited education, I had limited survival choices.
 
Sex work requires major changes especially when one is plain, submissive and naive. With the help of some of the veterans, I recreated myself by buying some sexy short dresses, high heeled and extremely uncomfortable shoes, makeup and other little things and then hit the street. It was hard, I was embarrassed but I did it. Later on I joined a sex work support group. We started sharing information and getting strong in our demand for the use of condemns as we did not want to be re-infected. I continued to feel really bad and decided to go to church to commune with God and his [followers] but there was such vigorous attack on ‘evil’ women like me, I left.
 
Having stayed with friends for four months, I tried to find a place of my own but failed and then I found a lover with his own place, a male sex worker. He took me in. I was so afraid of losing him that every little cent I worked for, I gave it to him. I did everything for him, almost became his slave in the hope that he would love me and continue to love me.
 
After attending the first JASS meeting where we all shared stories about our lives, I realized that I was not getting out of the poverty trap because I was taking care of a man at the expense of saving my money. During the workshop, I also was hit with the shattering knowledge that the ideas I had lived by were wrong, oppressive, and mindless. I made a vow that I would move out of his home and within two months, using the power within, one day I left him. I was able to save a little money and with that I bought a sewing machine and increased my income. I reorganized myself I started imagining a new reality, hoping, moving beyond discouragement, and reassembling pieces of my life again. Every evening, I imagined I was educated, able to speak English and with some good money in my bag. I refused to be diminished, suppressed, or destroyed. I refused to be warped by bigotry, tyranny, and pettiness. I refused!
 
That is how I crossed the line of inferiority complex and dependency on men. I am now a member of an HIV support group for sex workers. Through JASS workshop, I know am a feminist, my body is my own. That is what I tell my sex worker friends. My future plans include buying a plot of land back home, building a small house and supporting rural based sex workers to learn to stand on their own feet.