Violet Banda is not your average 21-year-old.
A poised, confident and outspoken child rights activist, Banda personifies the power of radio in Malawi.
Born to a family of five children, Banda is the only female and the only child to have contracted HIV from her mother who succumbed to AIDS when Banda was just three years old.
“When I found out I was positive, I was in primary school,” says Banda, “Whenever I would tell people about my status it happened that I lost all my friends. Some didn’t want to be near me or touch me. They just ran away. “
HIV/AIDs is the leading cause of death in Malawi, and Banda says the stigma she faced growing up is a common reality for the half a million AIDS orphans in the country.
For Banda personally, the discrimination affected her ability to perform at school, as well as her relationship with her family.
“It felt like they should do their own thing, and I should find other friends in the world”
But all of this changed when Banda turned 15, and was invited to speak publicly about her experiences on a children’s radio show run by a local NGO called Timveni.
Phillip Kamwendo is the programs manager at Timveni, a media project which focuses on children’s rights and creates space for children to anonymously tell stories about the issues that affect them. He recalls the first time Banda came on air.
“Her grandmother could not accept that she was HIV-positive until she came on our radio program,” Kamwendo says, “She told her story and how she feels, and her grandmother was listening. Afterwards, she changed her mindset towards her granddaughter.”
That wasn’t the only difference in Banda’s life.
Following her radio debut, she became a youth reporter for the project, where she’s enjoyed success in highlighting violence and abuse against children. Many of her stories grapple with issues like rape, child labour and forced marriages – and her work has often had a positive and immediate impact on local government policy.
“I once interviewed this girl who was raped by her teacher and had dropped out of school,” Banda says. When we brought her on the radio, the ministry of education took action. They fired the teacher and the girl returned to her studies.”
Banda along with her many Timveni colleagues are from humble beginnings. In Malawi, 80 per cent of the population lives in rural settings where electricity, clean water, and money are scarce. One form of entertainment for the rural masses is the radio, particularly so-called “listening clubs” where community members huddle around a battery-powered radio to hear a show of interest.
According to a national survey, 96 per cent of the population uses radio as their primary source of information. With such a large audience, it’s no surprise that organizations across the country are investing in listening clubs because of their influence in even the most marginalized communities.
Similar to Timveni, Story Workshop is a non-profit organization which produces dramatic portrayals of real-life human rights scenarios on-air. They sponsor 60 listening clubs and use the feedback they receive to inspire new content and measure their impact.
In addition, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) recently donated radios to 30 clubs across the country, while smaller NGO’s like Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre (CRIDOC) are hoping to do the same, provided they can get the funds.
For Banda, radio not only improved the quality of her life, but it also opened the doors to experiences she never thought possible. As a child rights activist she has travelled the world, and just last year, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. She maintains that the mass medium is the cheapest, most effective tool for change.
“It is the only key to awareness in Malawi” she says.