Troubled by the numerous stories of abuse she heard in her community, Charlotte Chisoni was moved to action and is now running an organization that helps victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence find their voice. She spoke to The Weight She Carries about how she is challenging what has been normalized for far too long.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Charlotte in a nutshell and what drives you?
I am a 24-year-old young lady, born and raised in Malawi. I am an introvert who decided to step out of her comfort zone, come out of her shell and speak out on injustices in Malawi.
I am the founder of Let Them Speak, a campaign aimed at creating a platform for the general public, victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to speak out and be linked to the social services that they need. The silence of million girls who are not born due to discrimination, the silence of countless more who endure abuse and harassment daily and the outcry of those who dare to raise their voices against injustice is more than enough drive for me.
What was your upbringing like?
I spent my childhood in Zomba, a small city in Malawi and later on moved to Lilongwe. I had a normal childhood, grew up in a middle-class home. I was very bright as a child. I started primary school at 4 years, which is far from the norm in Malawi, which is 6 years old. [I] skipped two classes. I was later selected to Likuni Girls Secondary school and later to University of Malawi, Chancellor College.
What led to your decision to support survivors of sexual assault and gender-based violence? What kind of work did you do before?
Growing up in a community where sexual and gender-based violence has been regarded as something that is normal, where women can’t speak up because they’re dependent on their spouses, where men can’t speak out because if they do they are regarded as weak, growing up in such an environment made me wonder what society I’m in, makes me think of the society I would want to raise my kids in.
I grew up in a community where if a woman is hit by the husband, neighbors will just watch because, according to our culture, you don’t intervene in family matters. A woman can’t express the hurt she’s going through in a marriage because banja ndi kupilira (marriage is about perseverance).
So with these [issues], I had the drive to reach out to these people who can’t speak out, these people who are voiceless, these people who do not know where to go with the information, these people who do not know where to go with the pain. I introduced Let Them Speak as a way to give people a voice and to create a safe space for the next generation that is it okay to speak out; it is okay to address these issues.
Safety (physical, psychological and economic) is a universal right especially in Malawi. Every minute, women are vulnerable to countless forms of abuse.
Professionally, I am in the communications field, trying to specialize in communication for development and social behavioral change communication.
How was the transition? Did you ever question your decision?
I am still in transition, juggling work and managing a startup organization and that keeps me very busy with a little time to rest. But so far, I haven’t questioned my decision because I have the vision with me and it gives me the strength to still rise and fight on.
What are some of the challenges you face in establishing Let Them Speak?
The challenge for me has been understanding that I need to tackle each of these issues from the grassroots up. Adding on to that, being a startup social service, I am under-resourced both financially and [with] human resource.
Why is it so important for survivors to share their stories?
By speaking out, the public shows that any form of sexual and gender-based violence is not normal and that the victims are not alone in addressing it.
The survivors of SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) send the message that it is possible to have been a victim and come out of it. They give hope to the current victims.
The victims break away from suffering in silence and take the first step to being helped.
The perpetrators know that with more victims speaking out, there is no room for them to hide.
What should the public know about the survivors you help?
Every survivor is different; every story is different. I handle every survivor as if they were the first.
What are the greatest lessons you have learned in dealing with the women you help?
Being in this line of work has changed my worldview. Suddenly I view the world as a cruel place. Some of the stories I come [across] are truly horrifying and I wonder what happened to humanity. But I have also come to realize that what the world needs [is] people to just fill in gaps for each other. It doesn’t take a lot to help someone and we can all be agents of change.
What advice do you have for women who are dealing with the pain of abuse?
There are people who are willing and ready to help you. Not everyone will shut you out. Do not suffer in silence; speak out.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you have a dream, do not take time in implementing it. I had the idea to start Let Them Speak in 2016 but have put it into actualization in 2020 because I was afraid that no one will support me. But I have been overwhelmed with the people, especially my friends, who have been key to establishing Let Them Speak, so it’s important to start. God will put the right people in place to help nurture your vision