In 2017, a photo of Virginia Khunguni with the Queen Elizabeth II appeared in the news. It was a breakthrough year for the activist, as she was among the young changemakers from across the globe who received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. This was the first high-level recognition of her work in Malawi, where she leads an initiative to end cultural practices holding back the advancement of young women and has founded Girls Arise for Change, an organization that supports girls who have escaped early marriages, sexual exploitation and child labor. “I work with young girls who are victims of abuses. For them, seeing me standing there with the Queen was a big inspiration. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but where you want to be in a life that is what matters,” says Virginia Khunguni.
Virginia knows what it is to be a victim of sexual abuse, as she herself was raped when she was just 16 years old. Her parents died when she was a kid, and Virginia was left in the care of her grandmother. After finishing the secondary school, she could not afford to study in college or at university. However, Virginia was dreaming of becoming the first female music producer in Malawi, and she would frequently go to studios to study music production and sound engineering. It was in one of such studios that the producer who was meant to be her mentor raped her.
Virginia was the victim, but everybody was accusing her, even her grandmother. “To them, it was like I was looking for men because I was the only female in the whole environment of men. Instead of getting support, you are treated like a prostitute. It was very humiliating for me. I was abused but couldn’t get support and I was very young. I didn’t know where to go,” recalls Virginia.
She never reported the crime, keeping all the pain and humiliation inside, until 9 years later when she became a journalist. She became interested in women’s rights and established a radio program called “Girls Arise” to address the issue. At the show, she encountered a large number of silent victims of sexual abuse: “When you are a victim and you talk about it, people see [it] you as if you are proud of it. It was very hard to talk about it. People expected me to be quiet, they expected me to hide it.”
It was hard but Virginia never gave up. She decided to go forward and founded her organization, Girls Arise for Change, as many girls and women going through abuse every day didn’t know their rights and how to report a crime committed against them. Most of the NGO’s beneficiaries are girls aged from twelve to twenty-two. According to UNICEF, Malawi has one of the highest child marriage rates in South and Eastern Africa. Forty-two percent of girls in Malawi are forced to marry before the age of eighteen, and 10 percent marry before the age of fifteen.
“The challenge that we are having in our society is forced marriage. I think it is because of poverty, and girls are seen as a means of financial support for their families. When they reach their adolescence, they are forced to marry an older man who at least has money. And even if they are abused, they usually don’t speak up. So, if we could overcome the poverty, we could overcome this issue as well. We are trying to give girls finance empowerment by giving them skills. If you have a skill, it is your lifetime asset. You use it to generate income – tailoring, fashion design, handcrafts, etc.,” explains Virginia Khunguni. Her organization has created hubs where girls meet each other, talk about their experiences and challenges, and turn ideas into projects. They also come to the centers of Girls Arise for Change to report sexual abuse and harassment.
So far, the organization has opened 12 hubs, but they are planning to cover the whole country. Unfortunately, the outbreak of COVID-19 has slowed them down and badly affected their work: “We are trying to keep the girls in schools, and when the schools are shut down, it means girls have to go home. We also have a food program in schools. Not going to school means they are not getting fed. And staying at home, they are facing poverty, which drove many girls into sexual activities, including being exposed to forced marriages. So, it has been a setback.”
Virginia Khunguni and Girls Arise for Change are trying to find a way to overcome this biggest challenge. Until then, they are addressing healthcare issues, distributing soap and more than 9 thousand masks produced by their beneficiaries among the poor people. Virginia sees the education and skills as the main key to development and women empowerment. Her goal is to establish learning centers across Malawi and Southern Africa where girls and women would have access to free skill education. And here is where the international community, in her opinion, can be helpful: “The help that we need is more opportunities. We have lands for building all these [centers], the community is willing to help, but we do not have the resources to build. If the international community could help us to build these educational and skill centers for women and also to provide girls scholarships, that’s the help that I am looking for.”
Virginia Khunguni is a role model for many young women, and a happy mother of two kids. Her husband is among those who are pushing her forward to do more and to reach out to more people. And the gratitude she feels towards them empowers her to go ahead: “I am grateful for the girls and young women that I work with. I am grateful because I work with those who have potential, but maybe the world has not provided them a platform to develop it, and we help them. I am grateful to the organizations that support our work. And most of all, I am grateful to my family. They support me very much, they push me, saying: “If you reach out to 100 girls, you can reach out to 300, don’t give up, you can do this!””