Chimoya, Malawi – Small fists fly towards throats, knees jerk from under pinafore dress hems up to groin level and two-pronged fingers shoot for the eyes as high-pitched shrieks of “No!” echo through the playground at Makankhula primary school.
“We use the knee to hit the groin of the assailant, to disable him, and then we run,” explained Alinafe Kambalane, who teaches self-defence to girls in 46 schools across Malawi’s Dedza district.
“They have to shout ‘No!’ and they have to run away,” Kambalane added, beaming with pride as her little warriors spring to life.
It is peculiar to watch the faces of otherwise shyly smiling girls harden into scowls or grimaces – eyes sharpening or widening in defiance – as they picture imaginary aggressors.
But in this small slice of southern Africa, where six exasperated child protection workers glumly described the rape of minors as “a social norm”, “normal”, “the norm” or “just culture”, putting the power to stop it in children’s hands is a necessary reality.
In little over a year, and with only 50 instructors, small Kenyan charity Ujamaa has trained almost 25,000 Malawian children to fight the sexual abuse that is commonly committed by those they most trust.
“Most girls are raped or sexually assaulted by people they know,” according to Martin Ndirangu, who runs Ujamaa’s Malawi project. “Boyfriends or partners, family members and teachers being among [the] highest perpetrators.”
Ujamaa’s six-week programme – split into weekly, two-hourly sessions – covers self-awareness, self-respect and defence skills.
Being told that the unwanted fondles and forced sex acts constitute abuse comes as a revelation to many children.