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The road to Tikondane, a safe haven for children in Lilongwe. Image by Jen Stephens. Malawi, Cartoon at the Tikondane Care for Children In and Off the Street center instructing girls to tell an adult if something has happened to them. Innocencia Mpinda is a bright year-old with a radiant smile. Having lost both parents, Innocencia was raised by her grandparents. She considered running away. Innocencia was spared by moving in with her great aunt.
Bridget Chetama is the social work coordinator at Tikondane Care for Children In and Off the Street , faith-based organization that operates a transit shelter for children living on the streets of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Chetama recalls a similar story of a young girl who did run away from an abusive situation, but not before contracting HIV:. Cynthia not her real name was 10 years old when she was found by a Tikondane social worker during an "outreach night" when workers go to the street to offer assistance to children.
The little girl had only been on the street two nights. Since she had blood on her dress, she was taken immediately for a medical evaluation. The initial HIV test came back negative. However, when they brought her back for a re-test, the test returned positive. Cynthia lived with her biological mother and HIV-positive stepfather. Her stepfather would buy gifts for the little girl and then send the mother out to farm the land so that he was alone with the child. Over the three-month period prior to her running away, he raped her repeatedly.
The stories of Innocencia and Cynthia highlight the detrimental effects of traditional beliefs about HIV that persist in Malawi. Other traditional customs outlined in a detailed study by the Malawian Human Rights Commission have been blamed for putting girls at risk of contracting the disease. In some parts of the country, including in southern areas dominated by the Yao or Lomwe tribes, a girl participates in secretive initiation ceremonies when she comes of age:.
In some instances, an older man known as a fisi , or 'hyena', will come to sleep with the girl in the middle of the night. The fisi may have unprotected sex with multiple young women, potentially fueling the spread of HIV in an area of the country where up to 14 percent of the population may be HIV-positive. Tradition is vital to Malawian culture. Although vilified and often seen as immutable, tradition may be the linchpin in bringing about change in HIV among adolescent girls.