Pamtondo: Shock and Awe

Close your eyes and picture a society where women and girls are no longer covering up bruises with heavy makeup, where they know themselves, their sexuality and have a voice. Picture a world where men value and respect women, appreciating their growth, ambition and resilience. Now open your eyes and meet Pamtondo - an initiative that aims to create a Malawi free from gender-based violence. As Dreamers, they know that no dream is too big.

Pamtondo aims to empower women and girls by bringing them together to share their stories through poetry, drama, music and other art forms. Men are invited to participate, too.

A recent Pamtondo intervention at Chancellor College included a play and a discussion. The play dealt with varied scenarios – from a young drunk woman blamed for being sexually assaulted at a party to a man experiencing abuse at the hands of his wife and mother-in-law.

The Pamtondo Dreamers held nothing back. They wanted their voices heard – they got it. They wanted people to speak freely – they got it. They wanted to entertain us – they did so. Shock was just the icing on top! The fact that we were ‘shocked’ in the first place reveals that, in Malawi, talking about sex, sexuality, our bodies and rape – in a crowd of mixed ages, genders and races – is uncomfortable.

“Do you seek your partners consent before you have sex?” the facilitator asked the guys in the room. The first response was laughter, as the guys elbowed one another and heads bent down to sneakers. One guy responded, “Consent can be found in different ways, not only the verbal ‘yes or no’ but by the reactions of someone’s body. Sometimes her body can consent without needing a verbal response”. A sea of nods and shakes emerged, contradicting voices piped up and the discussion gained momentum.

The facilitator then turned to the ladies and asked: “Do you tell your boyfriend what you want when having sex?” Silence. After some time, however, a young lady raised her hand: “Well, hypothetically, if I had a boyfriend, and I was having sex - since you are assuming that we have had sex, my answer would be yes.” And once again the room was abuzz with constructive dialogue.

Pamtondo made some things abundantly clear – although vigilance and caution are important, violence of any kind (especially gender-based) are never the victim’s fault. And consent is mandatory.

The performance called to mind Salt n’ Pepa’s classic chorus, “Let’s talk about sex baby – let’s talk about you and me,” as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. They would probably be glad to know that Malawi is talking and that Pamtondo is an initiative pioneered by fearless young leaders seeking collective solutions to the fight against gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS.