Bringing Women Together

Mirriam Munthali

My name is Mirriam Munthali and what is in my heart right now is to share my story with you. I am learning about storytelling as a feminist, and I feel good about that. All along, I didn’t know how to write a story, I only read or gave testimonies to other people. I am happy that this time I am writing a story for me.

‘Telling my own story…’

I was found positive in 1999 just after I lost my husband. My husband didn’t get sick, it was only a headache for 10 minutes and off he died. I followed up on his death at the hospital, and they told me that it was a combination of HIV, Malaria and TB. So as young as I was and very strong, I decided to go for an HIV test in 1999. It’s not that I was sick but I knew I had a responsibility over our one month-old baby to take proper care of myself. I went to the Save Our Souls hospital in Lilongwe, and found out that I was positive. I had not been with another man except for my husband. I also have a lot of responsibilities - I'm taking care of my immediate family, and the children of my brother and sister, which brings the number of people in my household to eleven. It is not easy but at the same time, I've managed to graduate with the Shareworld Open University of Malawi, I got awarded with an MBA last November and I am now studying finance and business administration.

I met JASS in 2008 – we had our first meeting in Lilongwe, and that’s where I learned more about power and it changed me. I learned about the different powers, power within, power over, invisible power. I used to cry a lot but now I am able to make decisions and overcome my problems because of my own power. I don’t hide my HIV status and I don’t regret sharing even my name and picture. During the Our Bodies, Our Lives campaign I was interviewed for television and one of the media guys even asked me if I wanted to be written as an HIV positive activist or as a feminist advocate. I told them that they must write my name and mention that I am a feminist and that I am HIV positive. Sometimes when I disclose my status, people accuse me that I have been given money but it’s not true. I do so because I feel that I am an example for younger women, and that disclosing my status will help them too. I am alive today because of my disclosure.

The area where I'm from, Ngwenya, has a population of more than 68 000. I work with about 5 000 women from different communities under the traditional authority of Tsabango. Where I come from there is so much property grabbing and violence against women, stigma and discrimination. I am doing a lot to change that. I document women’s issues and I document whenever they are raped, forced out of school or abused I know where to take the women to report to bring change. For the women and men who would like to go for HIV tests, I write letters to the nearest medical centres for them to be tested. Sometimes, I listen to them talk about their own feelings especially if they don’t want their status to be disclosed.

‘Feminism is about bringing women together’

I bring women together. Feminism is about bringing women together to be able to speak out and share experiences on issues and life realities and raise their voices. It can be marital rape, sex, property-grabbing - all different kinds of stories. In my country there are harmful cultural practices like blankets for the chief or pastor. Whenever the chief or pastor goes to new place they are given a virgin girl to sleep with, they don’t care what happens later or if the girl gets pregnant. They just say, ‘it’s a child of the spirit.’ This leads to early pregnancies and unsafe abortions and many girls are dying. Girls are forced to abort harmfully because they don’t want the child. One girl was raped by the chief for 5 consecutive days, when she realised she was pregnant, she came and told me. I tried to help her but, in desperation, she took a knife and pressed it into her vagina to remove the pregnancy and later died from excessive bleeding.  I fight for change by advocating for women's and girls' rights, and helping women find ways to say 'No.'  Right now, we are pushing and negotiating with government to legalise abortion because there are so many cases. Often, we don’t know the kind of situation the woman is facing yet we moralise. Unsafe abortions are being done in the same Christian society that preaches about love and compassion. The government must legalise so that there are safer ways for women to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, and also change laws to do away with cultural practices that lead to girls getting raped and lead to these pregnancies.

HIV positive women are often divorced by their husbands due to stigma and discrimination. Many men refuse to put on condoms, they'll say that marriage is about having ‘sweet sex’ so leave if you don’t want, I can’t eat sweets in a paper ('paper' refers to condom). Women should have a choice in these matters. Female condoms should be readily available so that women can secretly put them in. In Malawi, femidoms are sold but who can buy femidoms when they cannot buy food? I am lobbying government to give us free condoms for women. At church, [many people will say that] condoms should not be used. Every service, I take three packets of condoms and put them in the toilets for ladies and men. By the end of the service, I check and all the condoms are gone. The same people that are called holy take the condoms and use them! So I try to educate people in the church, to have sessions right there on the proper use of condoms because HIV does not discriminate.

I'm also working now with MANERELA+ (the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS) and other organisations to make the government give us positive people the right medication. Right now, many women have physical deformities because of the low class medication we are given. We love our bodies but now the deformations are getting worse and worse, they are affecting every area of our lives – some women go for an interview for a job and they don’t get the job, or they are discriminated against in every-day life.

I want to see change in the issues that affect women and their lives. I want to see the government put things in place to protect women and transform these situations. When I realised that I have the right to my life and when JASS helped me to realise that I have the power to claim my rights, it was a major turning point for me. I believe in the power within me and the power I have with my support groups.

Mirriam shared her story with Zimbabwean activist, Dudziro Nhengu at the JASS Southern Africa Writeshop (February 2013)