Putting the focus on to girls

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SIM Malawi’s Youth Work Co-ordinator, Pete Ong, recently organised a seminar looking at how to disciple girls in the church and at some of the barriers they face in society and in the church

Girls in Africa are often looked on as second-class citizens in society. The sad fact is that sometimes this is an attitude in evidence in the Church. A recent seminar held at SIM Malawi’s compound in Blantyre brought together Pastors and their wives, and Church Patrons and Matrons (effectively spiritual directors for youth in the Church) from the Africa Evangelical Church (AEC) in the Blantyre area to look at how girls can be better served and heard in the Church.

The seminar invited the delegates to listen to the experiences of four young ladies from churches in the Blantyre area who spoke about the experiences they had endured at home, at school and in their church. The delegates also had an opportunity to work in their church groups to come up with the start of an action plan for making girls heard more in their churches.

Girls facing many challenges

“Girls in Malawi face many challenges, and there is a big responsibility for the Church to look to disciple and mentor girls,” said Pete Ong.

“The Church in Malawi is very male-dominated when it comes to leadership, including youth leadership, so there is a real opportunity for older ladies in the churches to act as mentors to the younger women. After all, they have gone through many of the same challenges the young women are facing and have come through them.

“When I was doing research for a Masters Degree, I spoke to one pastor in Malawi who was very forthright in his views, and they sum up the situation so well. He said: ‘When young people are growing up they look at the treatment their sisters are receiving in the family … the boy is favoured and is sent to school … he is valued, unlike a girl, and that makes a boy know that he is more valued than his sister.’ And that is what we are trying to correct,” said Pete

Malawi: a young country

Pete also spoke about the demographic make-up of Malawi and the fact that in population terms it is a very young country, with almost 70 per cent being under the age of 24, very much the definition of ‘youth’ in the Malawian Church.

The delegates were invited to think about some of the challenges faced by girls in church and in society (see side panel).

The church-related challenges were expressed by the four young ladies who addressed the seminar; they were Enelesi from AEC Bangwe, Esnat from AEC Soche, Hannah from AEC Ndirande and Maria from AEC Thyolo. 

They spoke of peer-pressure at school, and sometimes in church, to have boyfriends. One spoke about her circle of friends threatening to cut her off if she did not get a boyfriend!

One of the girls found the pressure from boys so great at school that she moved to another school to get away from the pressure, only to find it at church as well.

Cynthia Sundman and the four young ladies who gave presentations at the seminar

Ingenious solution to pressure

Another of the girls came up with an ingenious solution to the pressure at church; she took her younger sister with her and found the boys lost a certain amount of interest in her as a result! It did not harm her cause when the younger sister also berated the boys for pressurising her big sister!

Fortunately, in all of these circumstances the girls were able to turn to their mothers who gave them sound advice about how to handle the pressure they were feeling.

No schooling

One of the girls, however, was not so fortunate. Her mother died when she was very young and she was brought up at first by her grandmother and then a series of aunts. None of the adults thought she should go to school so even now she is unable to read and write. She got into trouble fighting and was rescued from one situation by the Pastor’s wife from a local church. She started taking an interest in the girl and slowly introduced the Bible to her, and since she gave her life to the Lord her desire for fighting has greatly diminished, despite great provocation from her peers!

The keynote speaker at the event was Cynthia Sundman, SIM International’s Ministry Point Person for Youth and Young Adults. Cynthia has been based in Peru for 27 years and has been involved in youth ministry for all of that time.

Cynthia Sundman, SIM International’s Ministry Point Person for Youth and Young Adults

Benefit of good mentoring

She told delegates about the importance of strong mentors when she was growing up in the USA.

“I had good mentors and role models as I grew up as a young Christian in the USA,” she said.

“In many ways this led to me going into youth ministry, because I realised the importance of being alongside young people, especially the girls, at this crucial point in their development.”

She spoke of the way boys, both in Africa and South America, are often valued more highly than girls and how there is a need for more women to get involved in youth ministry.

“I think in an African context youth leadership, like so much of the Church, is male dominated. This is fine and some men can disciple girls as well as they can disciple boys,” she said.

“But there will be some situations where it would be better if a young woman could talk to an older woman, so we need to encourage this development to take place.”

Church Action Plans

One of the things which came out of the event was the need for churches to start to develop action plans for girls within their churches. The indications were that many churches had started to take matters discussed at the event seriously, as one Pastor and his wife explained.

“I have learned a lot today and realise that as leaders we have to do more for the girls in our churches,” said Rogers Piriminta, Pastor of AEC Thyolo.

Delegates working on an Action Plan for their church as part of the Girls’ Discipling seminar

How to counsel girls

“We need to think more about how best to counsel young people in terms of the challenges they face, especially with regard to relationships. I will be taking ideas back to my church and looking to set up Bible studies with the youth to help them better understand the Word of God and also I will be looking to set up counselling and guidance sessions for the girls with my wife Elizabeth.”

Empathy with what girls face

His wife, Elizabeth, spoke about how she could empathise with the four girls who addressed the event as she, too, had faced similar pressures as a girl.

“When I was growing up I faced many of the problems which the girls spoke of,” she said.

“I hope that I will be able to help girls in our church in similar situations by telling them my story and that I was able to come through all of those temptations which they face today. I hope this will be a help and an encouragement to them and will let them know they are not on their own.”

 

The AEC Youth Ministry work is supported by SIM Malawi project

MW96658 ‘Youth Ministry Capacity Building’

 

Challenges facing girls in Malawi

From society, the challenges include:

Being discouraged from attending school

Being encouraged to marry early (early teens is not uncommon) due to poverty and lack of role models

Being ill-treated in work and also being paid very low wages

Being undervalued or voiceless

Being victims of cultural practices

From the church, the challenges include:

A lack of involvement in church matters

Girls sometimes being forced to stay at home to clean or look after siblings while parents and older siblings go to church

A big gap between them and the church leadership – which is male-dominated

A lack of spiritual development in homes where parents are not Christians

A feeling that the Church does not think girls are important

A lack of guidance from leaders

An interpretation of the Bible which says women should be silent in church

 

 
 

 


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