Passion for Women and Children-Malawi
Posted 23 August 2015 12:00 AM by Katie Gillum
With a focus on maternal and young child health and inclusion, Passion for Women and Children (PAWOC) has been encountering abortion stigma at nearly all levels in their work. In particular, they work hard to make inroads on stigma at community, institutional and political levels. We got a chance to meet with founder and director, Darlington Harawa, at their office in Mponela, Malawi this May.
Darlington grounds PAWOC’s work in a deep understanding of local power and social pressure. Abortion access, reduction of unsafe abortion, and mitigating abortion stigma are to him a “public health issue, a human rights issue, a gender issue.”
When discussing PAWOC’s motivation for working on abortion and specifically abortion stigma, Darlington was thoughtful but very practical: “People are dying in silence, but really it’s not ‘people’ who are dying. It is really only women who are dying. We [as a community] are punishing women specifically.”
In their communities, stigma plays out at the individual and institutional levels and religion and traditional community structures reinforce the way stigma operates to punish women. As a result, PAWOC has been working directly with traditional faith communities and leaders: “Traditional leaders are gatekeepers…custodians of culture.” In order to counter the existing messages and misconceptions, PAWOC and other groups need to provide leaders with strong alternative stories and statistics to reframe. Successfully providing leaders with information and reframing can impact an entire region because these leaders have strong ties to and influence over members of their communities.
Passion for Women and Children's Current Work
To date PAWOC’s political work has been focused on interacting with political caucuses and civil society partnerships within Malawi and across Africa to advance political understanding of unsafe abortion. They are now moving to an approach that centers the real needs of constituents with political leaders. Darlington describes this shift: “We’ve been implementing this political work based on committees and political groups, but sometimes change is about numbers,” and PAWOC found that the benefit of educating politicians disappeared at elections when a whole trained committee would lose their office. “We’re moving to a more demand-driven approach by strengthening voices of communities,” he says. The group is working hard “to put a face on” the critical issue of unsafe abortion, and would like to see many people in the community able to share positive or more neutral experiences of abortion.
Ultimately, Darlington feels that this silence really comes from a lack of empowerment. “The elite and educated may be able to say that they have had an abortion,” he says with the recognition that the same access does not exist for all women in their region. In addition to the experiences of stigma that both PAWOC and the women they serve are encountering in the community, women are sharing stigmatizing experiences that they have in healthcare facilities. Darlington explains that “the current law puts service providers in a dilemma” as to how and what services to provide. Beyond the complex law, the healthcare provided at facilities suffers from stigmatizing personal attitudes that those providers have toward abortion and women that seek them.
Making further inroads on abortion stigma
As with much of our movement mitigating abortion stigma, PAWOC faces a major barrier in the lack of funding to do deep and lasting programmatic and mobilization work around abortion stigma. Despite this, the PAWOC team has identified a need from women who come to PAWOC looking for emotional support for handling the stigma and sometimes medical support for managing the ongoing complications of unsafe abortions. To meet this need PAWOC is hoping to employ several strategies: 1. Incorporating an abortion stigma lens and educational opportunities into their existing work with spouses of clergy and with community leaders; 2. Cultivating champions of sexual and reproductive health and rights into their work with community leaders; and 3. Developing a support group for women seeking care who will act as advocates for other women who need help negotiating the health system. If women they work with can meet and share experiences with others who are seeking abortion care, they can also create action and momentum for change at the community level in addition to the basic benefits of gaining allies and supporters to confront stigmatizing healthcare providers and unsafe abortion providers.
As a member of inroads, Passion for Women and Children have been actively engaging on the online inroads Collaboration Workspace and have told us that they would like to pair these online exchanges with in-person meetings and learning. In order to enhance their work on abortion stigma, PAWOC has needs for new materials, trainings, and programming that they can translate and use in their support and training groups. We at inroads look forward to the new work Passion for Women and Children are undertaking and will be looking for new ways to amplify their work and connect them to other inroads members doing direct support for women experiencing stigma.
inroads Member at a Glance
Name: Passion for Women and Children
Where they work: Dowa Region of Central Malawi
Size of organization: Between 6 and 8 Staff and Volunteers
Focus of work: Maternal Health and Mortality and Safe Abortion
Member of inroads: since November 2014
Other memberships: Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) Africa Youth Safe Abortion Alliance (AYOSA)