People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR): How COVID-19 affected us and how we developed resilience
Executive Director, People Serving Girls at Risk, Malawi
People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) a locally registered non-governmental organization in Malawi whose mission is to fight all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women, and forced child marriages. PSGR was founded in 2014 and is governed by a board of seven trustees who are very passionate about empowering young women and adolescent girls. PSGR’s work is guided by article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which emphasizes promoting the best interests of the child; Goal #5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to achieve gender equality; the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); and other instruments whose aims are to promote efforts to empower women to enjoy their human rights on equal basis with everyone.
Initially, the organization focused on ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), but the scope of work has broadened over the years to embrace an abolitionist approach. This is guided by the observation of PSGR, based on our experience, that all prostitution amounts to sexual exploitation. Therefore, every form of commercial sexual exploitation must be eradicated by offering exit strategies to those involved, while at the same time working on laws and policies to address the factors that make women and girls vulnerable.
While PSGR does not define itself as a faith-based organization, its staff members are mostly Christian. We collectively believe in the power of prayer and sometimes use Bible quotes, verses and stories in providing counseling to vulnerable women. In addition, every Monday morning, operations begin with a five minute devotion. During this time, one of us will read a Bible verse of their choice and give an interpretation before someone closes the session with a prayer, committing the week’s work into the hands of God.
At its offices situated in Thandizani Ana premises opposite Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, PSGR runs a drop-in centre where victims of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) can come at any time of the day to access psychosocial counseling provided by a professional counselor. The counselor will also engage the police, depending on the need, to do screening of the client to determine if they are also a survivor of human trafficking. In a normal day, at least two to three survivors will be registered at the drop-in centre, looking for services beyond psychosocial support such as hot meals, housing support and school fees for their children. Survivors are also referred to other service providers for long term shelter and medical attention and PSGR social workers provide accompaniment in such cases.
Awareness raising and sensitization is another key programming area of the work we do at PSGR. This is key to prevention while at the same time contributing towards building resilient communities, essential to combating sex trafficking. More often than not, traffickers prey on less informed individuals and communities in remote areas. Thus, our work takes us to these hard-to-reach areas, which big NGOs avoid, not least to because they don’t want to risk damage to their expensive vehicles, while small organizations like PSG, access these areas either by foot or motorcycles.
PSGR operates with a very lean staff of four and much of the work is supported by students from various universities on short-term internships as well as other community-based volunteers. This helps us to fill a gap where most donors do not provide institutional support to allow small NGOs like PSGR to pay salaries or monthly allowances to employ staff on a continual basis other than when their role is linked to discrete projects. Moreover, funding for the work we want to do is limited since donors prefer to support work aimed at responding to the effects of commercial sexual exploitation that are more tangible – such as procuring and distributing resources such as condoms and medication – rather than a broader abolitionist approach which is holistic and longer term in nature and more difficult to tie down to concrete project outcomes and measurables. This approach is upside down! To really bring about change, donors should provide resources for programs which empower women and reduce their vulnerability to commercial sexual exploitation.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone unprepared. There was so much uncertainty, bringing with it large scale panic. In Malawi travel restrictions and curfews were imposed on everyone. For PSGR, this meant that we could not undertake any of our outreach activities, including awareness raising and sensitization, as well as meeting survivors to give them the support they needed. It also meant that women who earned a living through commercial sex were denied an income, thereby increasing the demand on PSGR to provide food, shelter and other services. It was simply terrible!
Ironically, just like every institution, PSGR had to switch from its traditional way of doing things to adopting new approaches, such as going digital and providing services online. It was so challenging as we did not have the equipment and technical capacity to rise to the occasion. But we had to adapt.
We started sending money for food to survivors through mobile money facilities since we were no longer able to provide food directly at the drop-in centre. To some extent, counseling was done through mobile phones with staff taking turns to provide this service. But it was visible that the women and girls we support really panicked: they missed being able to meet with PSGR staff and did not know what to expect in the long term.
In the heat of things, all of our funding from external sources ceased. “We are experiencing challenges with our fundraising efforts as individual sponsors themselves are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic”, read one of the emails from a donor.
PSGR’s operations ground to a halt. Everything was crippled. More and more new terminologies and methods of doing things were introduced. Meetings went virtual but nobody provided funds for us to pay for the use of additional internet data. Staff were sent on indefinite leave and the office faced closure. And yet, the demand for our services increased dramatically.
Some of us used the little that we had left for food at home to buy data to attend virtual meetings
The worst moment was when a survivor cried uncontrollably, upon being told we could no longer support them. The survivor narrated about her responsibility to support five children and her sick mother, all of whom looked to her for their daily needs. I personally felt so helpless and useless to her. I shed a tear when I got home.
We remain thankful to our partner, CAP International, who through the Abolitionist Emergency Fund provided PSGR 3,000 Euros to resuscitate operations.
Although COVID-19 paralyzed movements, cases of trafficking increased. At one point, local police with support from PSGR intercepted 45 girls being trafficked from Blantyre, the capital city, to the Central Region of Malawi for commercial sexual purposes. This interception raised the alarm that it was crucial to continue our work of raising awareness and sensitizing communities against human trafficking, despite the risks.
The few staff that remained braved all elements and took the risk, also reaching out for the first time to religious institutions such as churches and mosques. Working with religious institutions was a new strategy as we became particularly aware of the role that they were playing in people’s lives and that they offered a platform where we could reach out to leaders who were trusted by their communities, in both urban and rural areas. We educated sheikhs, Imams and pastors, as well as traditional chiefs on how COVID-19 had rendered women and girls more vulnerable to sex trafficking. We built their capacity with skills and knowledge about emerging trends as well as what to do to help counter human trafficking at the grassroots level. These institutions already had the trust of their congregations and communities. It was easy for them to factor in components related to education about human trafficking in their sermons and announcements.
We also encouraged faith-based institutions to allow and encourage their faithful to get vaccinated. This was a crucial campaign because many believers churned misconceptions and stereotypes against the vaccine.
We are grateful that God remained faithful and his grace was sufficient. None of the members of staff were critical, although most of us tested positive for COVID-19 multiple times.
Currently, more of PSGR’s programmes are focusing on rebuilding the ravages caused by COVID-19. We recognize that efforts made in the pre-COVID era have faced disruption. Children who switched to online education have faced the risk of online grooming. Many girls will be forced to marry, due to rising levels of poverty just as many will be trafficked to make up for the gap created by those who died.
The drop-in centre is back open to the public, continuing with services to survivors of trafficking. The staff still wears those happy faces, smiling all the time to provide hope not only to victims and survivors, but also amongst ourselves, that things will be okay sooner or later.
So, yes we were ransacked by the COVID-19 pandemic but we are emerging stronger with lessons and optimism. We believe we were called to provide a service and that we must not falter. We are working in an extremely challenging environment, with Malawi being ranked as the fourth poorest country globally and having literacy levels amongst the lowest in the world, alongside some of the highest rates of forced child marriage and HIV/AIDS globally.
Staff and volunteers of PSGR