With International Women’s Day fast approaching on 8 March 2015, The Leprosy Mission is working to empower young girls living below the poverty line in Mozambique. Charlotte Walker reports…
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
One in five girls in Mozambique are married by the age of 15 and more than half by the age of 18, Population Council statistics reveal. This is the latest challenge for The Leprosy Mission as it works to enable youngsters from some of Mozambique’s most marginalised communities – both boys and girls – to finish their education. Leprosy is a disease of poverty and, as a result, communities affected by leprosy tend to be made up of the poorest of the poor.
The Leprosy Mission runs health, education and livelihood projects in Cabo Delgado, a desperately poor province in the north of this African nation where people mainly survive as a result of subsistence farming. Government figures reveal the women’s literacy rate in Cabo Delgado to be just 32 per cent, the lowest in the country, and the province has the nation’s highest chronic malnutrition rate for the under fives.
Road to the future
One of The Leprosy Mission’s projects in the province is a schools project named Iphiro Yohoolo, meaning ‘road to the future’ in Macua, the local language. The project offers education to 200 youngsters affected by leprosy and disability at any one time and has a particular emphasis on the education of girls who face many challenges to finishing their schooling.
One key issue is child marriage. Many girls are married without their consent. The Leprosy Mission see this as nothing less than a violation of human rights. Consequently, it has established girls’ clubs to educate young women on sexual violence, HIV and sexual health as well as the pitfalls of early marriage. Through role-play and mentoring, the clubs work to build their confidence to challenge community attitudes and to teach girls to support each other.
It is not enough to talk to the children, who after all are still minors. The project works with parents too; encouraging them, in turn, to encourage their daughters to finish school, helping them to see the benefits of doing this instead of putting pressure on girls to stay home to help with household chores.
Stitched in some other way
Christian singer songwriter Philippa Hanna is a passionate supporter of the project and has offered to help support The Leprosy Mission in raising awareness of the plight of young girls in Mozambique. The Sheffield-born star says she has had a heart for people affected by leprosy since watching the 1959 historical drama Ben Hur as a youngster.
Leprosy causes nerve damage resulting in a person having numb hands and feet, which mean they lose the gift of pain. And pain is a gift; without it ulcers can unknowingly form and become infected. In severe cases, this leads to the shortening of limbs and even amputation. It’s a disease we don’t see in this country, but worldwide there are three million people living with irreversible disabilities, including blindness, as a result of the late treatment of leprosy. The suffering doesn’t end there; there is an age-old stigma attached to leprosy and many of these people have been cast out by their families and communities.
Before becoming a Christian 10 years ago, Philippa was wracked with self-doubt and insecurity which she openly talks about in her 2013 book Following the Breadcrumbs. In fact, her best-known song is the autobiographical Raggedy Doll, the lyrics of which tell of being beautifully and wonderfully made despite sometimes wishing we’d been ‘stitched’ in some other way.
Life changing moments
Philippa made her first visit to the developing world in 2009 when she visited Haiti shortly before the 2009 earthquake with the Christian charity Compassion UK. “It was a spiritual detox and made me question why people had to live in poverty and die from curable diseases,” she said. “God has given me so many blessings in my life and has put me in a privileged position. When you’re in that position, you’re in it for a reason and that’s to do something with it. I felt God was saying to me, ‘I’ve given you the resources now what are you going to do about it’?”
After returning from this life-changing trip, Philippa released the single Ave to Love, donating all proceeds to Compassion’s work in Haiti and becoming an ambassador for the child development charity.
Now, she is looking forward to a 31-day tour date with Collabro, winners of Britain’s Got Talent 2014 and offering her support to The Leprosy Mission’s projects. She said: “My song Raggedy Doll tackles confidence issues and feeling like the odd one out and this really resonates with the work of The Leprosy Mission.
“When I heard about The Leprosy Mission’s work, it really touched my heart; there’s no one who would understand the experience of being marginalised so much as someone affected by leprosy.
“We need to remember that a body that has been changed
through illness is still so precious to the one who made it. These people need to know they’re beautiful and valued. It’s a huge thing for their self-esteem as they come up against people’s view of them.”
Philippa is a great encourager for young women in the UK to stay true to their faith and beliefs. “This is not something unique to the UK and applies to women all around the world,” she said. “As a woman in the music industry, I see a struggle surrounding gender on a daily basis. Some women think it empowers them to dress alluringly and a woman artist is often judged by her physical self. But in reality our appearance decorates a jar of clay that holds the treasure within it.”
“I’ve a lot of friends struggling to find true love and they tend to focus on sex, their appearance and what a man wants rather than what’s inside them. A lot of the time we don’t know what can be done until we do it differently. Looking back at my career, I have had funny looks from people for being a female guitarist. If I make a complaint about the sound quality I would be called a diva whereas it would simply be viewed as being professional if a man did that. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to tackle this is to get on with your job and do it well.”
“I’m sure this is something the first woman Prime Minister or the first women in Congress have had to do and this is the attitude I would encourage these girls in Cabo Delgado to take with their education and their futures.”
~ Written by Charlotte Walker
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