Image taken from The Nation
Charity Stephens is founder and executive director of New Beginnings Malawi.
This is a local organisation that supports expectant girls, young mothers and adolescent girls in difficult and abusive situations.
Stephens herself is mother to a six-year-old daughter and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications from African Bible College (ABC).
Her organisation works with young women below 25 years old from peri-urban areas of Lilongwe with a desire to expand to other districts in the country, where their services are equally needed.
Stephens says her aim was to create employment opportunities for young mothers and adolescent girls by training them in different vocational skills so that they can use the skills to start small-scale businesses.
“We are helping to improve the mental health of young women in Malawi as we provide our beneficiaries with psychosocial support through trauma counselling to help them deal with any pain they’ve been subjected to. We also have a life skills programme, which includes human rights awareness, gender based violence (GBV) education and awareness.
“We also connect our girls to service providers such as legal departments, hospitals and police. Part of it is also sexual reproductive health rights education so that they have the right information to help them make informed decisions when it comes to sexual relations,” she says.
On top of that, the organisation also has an early childhood development (ECD) programme where children of the young mothers are taken care of while their mothers are in school.
New Beginnings also has a feeding programme which provides lunch for both mothers and their children every day.
It also educates communities on changing negative narratives and stereotypes on continued victimisation and stigma against young mothers.
Stephens says her personal experience as a young and single mother is what motivated her to start New Beginnings.
“I got pregnant out of wedlock when I was 21 and I faced a lot of challenges. Apart from being judged on how I had ended up in that situation, some people went as far as labelling me a prostitute and a shame for what I had done. My situation eventually worsened as I ended up out of university, homeless, financially lacking and cohabiting with the father of my child who, unfortunately, was physically and psychologically abusive towards me,” she says.
She adds that there were other people around her, especially from her church, who were willing to support her and she was able to leave an abusive situation, return to school to finish her degree and find healing from the trauma that had affected her for a long time.
“Surviving this ordeal made me realise there are many other young mothers just like me across Malawi who are facing the same pain and rejection, and need support which isn’t readily available. And so, New Beginnings was started in 2017 so that I could reach out to others whose stories are like mine,” says Stephens.
She adds that what she enjoys the most about working with New Beginnings is knowing that the organisation gives hope to young mothers.
However, beneficiaries are young women who have grown up being told that what is expected of them is to get married, have children and run a home.
Many come from families that do not encourage them to pursue an education or business and they are denied financial and emotional support to be self-reliant.
New Beginnings is the place they go to find hope that the future is going to be different and pursue more than being a wife and mother, and be whatever else they set their minds on.
At the beginning of 2020, the organisation enrolled 120 young mothers and adolescent girls into four different vocational skills classes.
Ninety-nine successfully completed their training and 87 of them graduated from their programmes on November 27.
Since its inception the organisation has reached out to about 500 young women, most of whom have found employment using skills they gained from the centre while others have accessed loans from the organisation to start businesses.
Stephens says currently, they raise funds by writing grant proposals to organisations that fund start-ups such as theirs.
Their benefactors include local well-wishers who have heard about the initiative and would like to see them achieve their dreams.
“The biggest factor that has helped me achieve my goals is my passion to see the lives of other young mothers changed. I see myself in the beneficiaries that are supported by my organisation.
“Their stories are similar to mine and I know how much pain and desperation these girls face. And so, the same way someone else helped me move past those issues is the same way I want to carry that torch forward and help my girls overcome their issues,” Stephens explains.
When asked about what has made her achieve her goals, she says over the years, she has built a strong network, committed staff members and support system of family and friends.
She says these people come through for her when she needs them and are willing to carry some of the load with her—be it making sure their beneficiaries are being taken care of or just sitting in for her so that she can have some rest.
“When I first started in 2017, I operated New Beginnings as a safe home so that I could provide a temporary, but safe and nurturing living option for expectant girls, young mothers and adolescent girls who may have been chased away from home or abandoned by their families after getting pregnant or needed to leave abusive environments or forced marriages.
“Unfortunately, running a home is not cheap, and I needed a lot of man power [among other things] to function properly. Because at the time, I didn’t have the right tools to enable me provide this service, I ended up deciding to close down the home and it broke my heart because I felt like I had failed the girls,” she recalls.
She says she likes to tell young girls that they should decide what they want to achieve, figure out what steps they need to take to get where they want and build the right relationships with those that can support them.
Stephens also advises the girls to put in a lot of work and remember that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’.
She adds: “Do not get caught up wondering how everyone is so far ahead and you seem to lag behind. You are on your own journey—of course, it will look different from that of others.”