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Empowered rural women key to economic development

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ANYANGWE— Financial programmes are designed with the male head of household as the intended client

Before the sun rises to announce the dawn of a day, Beatrice Phiri, 42, is already out, preparing her land for the next growing season.

Phiri, a humble farmer with permanent visual and physical disability in Chavunguma Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chulu, Kasungu District, cultivates maize, groundnuts and soya beans on her small piece of land, a few metres from her grass-thatched house.

“I am late for farm work today. I usually wake up around 4:30am and, with struggle, I walk for about 10 minutes to my farmland. I till the land until 10am,” she says, and quickly dashes for a hoe lying a few metres from the interview point.

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Phiri says, like many other smallholder farmers in the country, she grows maize and groundnuts largely for domestic use while soya is her major cash crop.

The woman is, however, continually thrown off the balance as bad weather takes a toll on the crops, limiting her productivity.

Even from the little she harvests in a year, Phiri does not earn the much-desired returns from her endeavours because she is at the mercy of the vendors, who offer rock-bottom prices for her produce.

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“Farming isn’t easy at all for smallholder farmers like me. The only way out is to increase production so that one can generate some profit. But I cannot do that because I don’t have capital. I cannot access a loan either because I don’t have anything to offer as collateral,” she says.

RESOLUTE— Phiri

Phiri’s facial and physical appearance tells a story of a weary mother; one who is not willing to quit because she does not have an alternative.

She says farming has been her sole source of food and the little income she earns is used as fees for her two school-going children.

Esnath Zimba, 50, of Mzukuzuku Village, T/A Mzukuzuku in Mzimba District is not spared the wrath of poverty too.

Despite being a widow, Zimba bears all the burden of feeding her six children.

“No one from the husband’s side cares to support me. It’s not easy to feed all these children by myself,” she grumbles.

The two fall in a group of millions of women who toil all day long to fend for their families either singlehandedly or with little support.

With or without internal or external support, a bigger chunk of women in Malawi is forced to assume responsibilities of caring for families, yet their contribution to families’ economic growth and development is never counted.

Instead, some husbands and relatives continue regarding wives, or their in-laws, as possessions.

Rural women farmers’ and entrepreneurs’ access to credit

Recently, the government launched the National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS) that creates a policy framework for increasing financial services at affordable cost to low income segments of society, specifically women, from 29 percent to 55 percent by 2020.

The strategy also aims to reduce the average cost of using bank accounts from 17 percent of monthly income to 5 percent, increase access to formal loans by over 50 percent.

On the other hand, inclusion policies seek to integrate traditionally unbanked groups into the formal banking and financial system.

Such groups include the youth, women, persons with disability, displaced persons and other marginalised groups.

However, a latest study commissioned by the United Nations (UN) Women reveals that rural women farmers and entrepreneurs continue to face marginalisation in accessing loans to increase and improve their agricultural production in spite of several legislative and policy interventions to foster inclusion.

The study says although many women in Malawi are involved in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), a key challenge for them is their inability to access the credit needed to procure means of production.

However, the study, titled ‘Rural Women Farmers’ and Entrepreneurs’ Access to Credit: A Gender Analysis of Macro and Micro Finance Institutions Policies and Procedures’, notes that there are no specific barriers to access to credit for women as laws and regulations in place are either gender neutral or promote gender equality.

Lost gains through financial exclusion

UN Women Country Representative, Clara Anyangwe, says women in Malawi are faced with severe constraints of inequalities and discrimination, which prevent them from pulling themselves and their families out of poverty and contributing to the national development.

She adds that many rural women have limited autonomy and low status, which put them at increased risk of hunger, gender-based violence and other human rights violations.

“This challenge stems from the fact that financial programmes are designed with the male head of household as the intended client and fail to recognise that women are active, productive and engaged economic agents with their own financial needs and constraints,” Anyangwe says.

She emphasises that advancing rural women’s political, social and economic status are vital ends in themselves as well as critical strategies to eradicate poverty, promote women’s rights and pave the way for sustainable development.

But Anyangwe notes that low literacy levels, especially among women entrepreneurs and girls, is another factor that negatively affect women’s participation in decision-making, including recognising and reporting gender-based violence cases.

New Finance Bank (NFB) Chief Commercial Officer, Bernard Mkandawire, admits that, although macro lending policies and procedures foster women’s access to credit, commercial banks and microfinance institutions have continued to marginalise women and girls as far as access to credit and loans is concerned.

But Mkandawire says NFB is developing deliberate policies and products designed to benefit women entrepreneurs.

“I can assure you that, very soon, this problem will be over. We, as banks, are equally concerned with the situation and are working towards addressing the inequalities,” he says.

Ministry of Agriculture Controller of Extension and Technical Services, Alexander Bulirani, says the study is a wake-up call for various stakeholders.

Bulirani says it would be surprising for banks and microfinance institutions to resist the wave of change amidst a pool of interventions requiring them to conform to legislative and policy procedures on gender issues.

After all is said and done, the question is: Will banks and microfinance institutions be able to include Phiri and Zimba by 2020 as espoused in NFIS?

Only time will tell!

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