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Empowering girls and breaking taboos in Warm Heart of Africa


Irish hockey star Róisín Upton spent time in Malawi as a GOAL ambassador with rugby player Jenny Murphy and Dublin footballer Sinead Aherne

Irish hockey star Róisín Upton spent time in Malawi as a GOAL ambassador with rugby player Jenny Murphy and Dublin footballer Sinead Aherne

Irish hockey star Róisín Upton spent time in Malawi as a GOAL ambassador with rugby player Jenny Murphy and Dublin footballer Sinead Aherne

Malawi is affectionately known as the 'Warm Heart of Africa', and according to Irish hockey star Róisín Upton, it is an apt description.

"People were so hospitable and had so much joy and energy, while having so little, and it was very humbling to see and experience," said Upton following a recent trip to the country which was so badly hit by Cyclone Idai last March. More than one million people in Malawi were directly affected by the cyclone, one of the worst recorded in Africa.

Upton caught the attention of locals during her visit as she was sporting a bright red cast on her left arm, having famously played on with a fractured wrist and scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out victory over Canada in November which earned the Irish team a spot at this year's Olympics in Tokyo.

''Not a lot of them know it (hockey)'', she says, but added that when 'World Cups' are mentioned in the conversation, (the Irish team reached the World Cup final in 2018), ''people tend to listen.''

The Limerick native, Ireland rugby international Jenny Murphy and Dublin ladies' football captain Sinead Aherne travelled to Malawi with humanitarian aid agency GOAL, and saw at first hand the devastating impact climate change can have on local communities. All three are GOAL ambassadors.

Malawi's agriculturally-based economy is particularly susceptible to climate change's negative consequences. High-intensity rain has also brought more floods, including to areas where they have not occurred before. Higher temperatures are now more prevalent, and seasons are becoming more unpredictable. Then there is drought to consider.

"Drought can be devastating," said Upton. "I witnessed the impact that it has on farmers and their crops as well as their ability to make money, and then I saw the strength they have to recover."

It is estimated that more than 6.5 million people were affected across the country in 2017 as Malawi experienced one of the worst droughts on record, caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon. ''I remember walking more than a mile through crop fields in searing heat to see a farmer's irrigation scheme, while a group of local women who joined us on the journey, sang songs all along the way. It was a great moment of female resilience.

"Through the various local savings and loan schemes, which GOAL helps facilitate, simple investments like irrigation pumps can help farmers to access low water levels in lakes due to the lack of rain, and the relief this has brought is quite incredible. The purchasing of the pump and the scheme itself then has a knock-on effect and helps the local economy to grow."

For Irish rugby centre Jenny Murphy, discovering how the often-taboo subject of menstrual hygiene was an area of concern for young girls in Malawi, was quite thought-provoking. ''We don't have to talk about it (menstrual hygiene) at home in Ireland," she says. ''For us, it's no big deal. There is no stress about it. However, in Malawi, a lack of education and resources on this issue means many young girls drop out of school."

GOAL has promoted menstrual hygiene management in Malawi since 2017, with a focus on promoting positive behaviours among girls in schools. The idea is to help keep girls in school, without them dropping out due to sanitation concerns.

''A mothers' group we met were helping to break a culture of silence on the issue, it was very empowering," added Murphy. "Previously, so many girls had to drop out of school because they didn't have the facilities to change, or they simply didn't have sanitary pads.

"We met another group who were creating re-useable pads, that are very affordable. The pads were then given to families that are not as well-off so they can continue their education, instead of girls dropping out at 12, 13 and 14 years of age. It also allows people to make a business out of it, by purchasing sewing machines, etc, and to be more open about it, which is great, about something which is often taboo.''

Murphy found it interesting, that, from a cultural perspective, 'buy-in' was needed from the village chief so that the idea of reusable sanitary pads would be further accepted by the wider community. "I saw a local village chief proudly waving the re-usable sanitary pad in the air, with him being very proud of what the community have achieved, and quite open about it also."

All-Ireland ladies' football winner, and Dublin captain, Sinead Aherne, says it was "empowering" to see how women in the community go about their day-to-day work schedule, while also educating one another on nutrition.

"A lot of women tend to work in the field while men get involved in other areas of agriculture. Seeing how resilient the women are over there is really empowering. How women learn in groups about nutrition and have gained confidence from upskilling was also something different, that I didn't expect."

GOAL has been working in Malawi since 2002. The organisation implements programmes across a number of districts in the southern region, two of these districts receive funding from Irish Aid.

One of the programmes is known as the Nutrition Impact in Positive Practice (NIPP) approach - a community-centred approach designed to tackle the underlying behavioural causes of malnutrition. The programme was designed by GOAL - something the organisation has pioneered with great success in many countries. The approach has been so successful in Sudan, the ministry of health has since made NIPP part of their national health curriculum. To date, over 3,000 people in Malawi have been reached with key nutrition messaging and actions through the NIPP programme.

The programme includes community or group gatherings, with discussion on various nutrition-related topics, such as hygiene and cooking demonstrations. NIPP circles target both man and women who are found to be suffering from, or at risk of, moderate acute malnutrition.

''The NIPP approach, and in particular, the NIPP circles, was quite successful in Malawi,'' says Aherne. ''Every so often, when I am doing something routine which I take for granted, I stop and pause. Like the other day, I was considering what to have for a balanced lunch, which got me thinking again about the NIPP circles I saw in action in Malawi, and how some communities have to work harder and have more focus, just to learn about basic nutrition. This has really made me appreciate what we have here and how a small amount contributed to the various GOAL country programmes in Africa can make a difference for sustainable development.''

  • Paul Gallagher is Communications Officer with GOAL

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