SALIMA, MALAWI - Schoolgirls in Malawi are learning what to do if someone tries to attack them. A Kenyan NGO started the training in response to a recent study that showed one in five girls under the age of 18 in Malawi has been sexually assaulted.

At a school in the Salima district of central Malawi, girls are practicing punches and jabs. But this is not a martial arts class. These girls are learning how to defend themselves.

“The curriculum involves both verbal and physical skills. Physical skill is used when it is the best and last option, meaning that we use mainly verbal skills which is how to use their voices to [prevent] the assaults,” said Loveness Thole, the Ujamaa curriculum coordinator.

The girls learn to shout for help or pretend they see someone coming to fool their attacker. They also learn techniques to disable the attacker so they can run for safety.

Learner listen attentively from Ujamaa instructors
Learner listen attentively from Ujamaa instructors about how to defend themselves against attacker. (L. Masina/VOA)

Instructors from the charity Ujamaa Pamodzi Africa have been conducting these weekly, two-hour lessons at schools in seven districts around Malawi.

“By the end, we would like to reduce the incidents of rape. We would also like to promote education by reducing early marriages, school drop-outs and also early pregnancies,” said Simang’aliso Domoya, Ujamma project coordinator.

The U.N. Children’s Fund is financing the program. So far, 25,000 girls have taken part.

Teachers like Rebecca Msalanyama say the Ujamaa interventions have removed some of the stigma around sexual assault.

“In the past, girls were not reporting it but now they are indeed empowered to report abuses. Some are reporting the incidents to us teachers and others to their parents for action,” she said.

A learner at Ngolowindo primary school in Salima d
A learner at Ngolowindo primary school in Salima district practices how to disable the potential attacker when she is cornered. (L. Masina/VOA)

Some girls, such as student Shang Chituzu, said they have already had to use their skills.

“My uncle ordered me to lie on his bed. When I asked why, he started touching my body. I told him to stop and that I will report him to police or my mother if he continues. After hearing this, he ordered me out of his room,” said Chituzu.

The Ujamaa project is also teaching boys about respecting girls and teaching them how to intervene if they see a girl being assaulted.

Funds permitting, project organizers say they want to extend the self-defense program to students nationwide.

The initiative also teaches boys to respect girls
The initiative also teaches boys to respect girls and how to intervene when a girl is being sexually assaulted. (L. Masina/VOA)