If 20-year-old Ireen [not real name] from Chigombe, Traditional Authority Kalonga, in Salima District had her way, she would be a nurse at one of the public or private sector institutions right now.
It was never to be.
“My father and mother, who had chronic illnesses and died within two years of each other between 2019 and 2021, identified a man to marry me way back in 2018, when I was 16 years old.
“I eavesdropped on their conversation with my grandfather, who is still alive, and I heard my father tell him that they wanted to live me in safe hands, namely that of one of the traders in Malimba, some eight kilometres from Kamuzu Road. When my mother died on September 18 2019, my father told me, a day after her burial, that I had to move out of the house and start staying with the man they had identified for me. That is how I became a wife,” she said.
Ireen, who was in form one at a private school at Msika wa Ukulu— which is at the Boma— said that is how she and her dream of becoming a nurse ‘divorced’.
Her failure at education also meant a perpetuation of poverty, especially among marginalised groups such as women.
According to United Nations (UN) Women, progress has been made but women continue to be marginalised in Malawi, such that there is more work to be done to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It indicates that, at the global level, notable gains on women’s rights have been made.
UN Women says, in Malawi, groundwork has been done, too, citing the legal framework.
“In Malawi, 83.3 percent of legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality under the SDG indicator, with a focus on violence against women, are in place. In 2016, 73.9 percent of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods,” it indicates.
The body, however, says early marriages continue to be a challenge, with 42.1 percent of women aged between 20 and 24 years getting married, or finding themselves in a union, before age 18.
“The adolescent birth rate is 137.6 per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 19 as of 2015, up from 135.9 per 1,000 in 2014. As of February 2021, only 22.9 percent of seats in Parliament were held by women. In 2018, 16.6 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Also, women and girls aged 15+ spend 8.7 percent of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 1.3 percent spent by men.
“As of December 2020, only 41.9 percent of indicators needed to monitor the SDGs from a gender perspective were available, with gaps in key areas, in particular: Information and communications technology skills. In addition, many areas – such as gender and poverty, physical and sexual harassment, women’s access to assets (including land), and gender and the environment – lack comparable methodologies for reguar monitoring. Closing these gender data gaps is essential for achieving gender-related SDG commitments in Malawi,” UN Women indicates.
For the United States Agency for International Development (USaid), cases of gender-based violence (GBV) are particularly worrying.
It says GBV remains a thorn in the flesh of Malawians that want women to be free from any form of torture.
Otherwise, USaid indicates, GBV and other vices have left women and girls in Malawi far worse than their male counterparts on socio-economic indicators including literacy, secondary and tertiary education enrolment and completion, wage equality, political participation and literacy.
“Despite their critical role in food production for their households, Malawian women have little control over land, even when it is their own. The lack of access to productive economic resources is frequently cited as a major impediment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and is a particularly important factor in making women vulnerable to poverty. Malawi does not have sufficient infrastructure to cater to the needs of all of the girls who have graduated from primary school and earned a spot in secondary school —which limits the impact of USaid efforts to keep girls in school.
“To address these challenges, USaid partners with the Government of Malawi (GoM) and a wide variety of Malawian institutions to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment by mainstreaming gender issues in activities across sectors. The mission continues tackling GBV challenges through the integration of GBV in health sector activities in Maternal Neonatal and Child Health, Family Planning, and Reproductive Health activities and by facilitating GBV client referrals to remedial systems. In addition, Usaid/Malawi has included women’s empowerment and adolescent girls’ activities in the Sustainable Economic Growth, Democracy and Governance, and Education sectors,” it indicates.
Not that initiatives aimed at addressing the challenges have not been introduced; far from it.
For instance, the Malawi Government, through Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, in conjunction with UNFPA, implemented a project aimed at promoting gender equality and women empowerment with support from State and non-State institutions to accelerate attainment of national development.
The initiative, which started in 2012, targeted vulnerable groups, mainly survivors of GBV, people living with HIV and Aids as well as girls who dropped out of school because of gender or poverty- related reasons.
“Women constitute 52 percent of … people in Malawi but, for many years, illiteracy and some cultural practices have put many women in a disadvantaged position,” UNFPA indicates.
In the 13 districts where the initiative was rolled out— in this case, Chitipa, Karonga, Nkhata Bay and Mzimba in the Northern Region; Dedza, Dowa, Mchinji and Salima in the Central Region and Chikwawa, Chiradzulu, Machinga, Mangochi and Nsanje in the Southern Region—girls and women were sensitised to socio-economic development issues as one way of uplifting their status.
However, in areas such as Group Village Manesi Kapeni in Blantyre, the low economic status of women is said to be fermenting GBV cases there.
According to Umodzi Youth Organisation Project Manager, Memory Pondeponde, economic empowerment could be one of the solutions to the problem.
“This is the reason we have been giving out sewing machines to women. Just this month, we gave women 10 sewing machines which will be used for training women group members in tailoring and embroidery in Group Village Manesi Kapeni, Traditional Authority Kapeni, Blantyre.
“If women are economically empowered, they are less likely to be subjected to gender-based violence in their society. We want to help women become self-reliant, thus enhancing their productivity at home and participation in community development efforts,” Pondeponde said.
One of the women in the area, Mercy Maluwa, said, if such initiatives were extended to other areas of the country, Malawi would address one of the hindrances to women’s rights: GBV.
Lunzu Ward Chancellor, Margret Mikita Sisseo, echoed the sentiments.
“Women empowerment helps women take control of, and benefit from, available resources. We, as councillors, laud foreign organisations such as Marie Schlei Verein of Germany, who have been supporting women here,” she said.
According to documents at Blantyre District Council, the initiative is targeting 125 vulnerable women, including single mothers, who will directly benefit through vocational and business skills and a start-up capital of €58 each for the targeted 20 women aged between 20 and 35 years.
It is hoped that, during the one year of implementing the initiative, women will, using proceeds of tailoring, livestock keeping and business skills training, support their families and send their children to school.
Earlier this month, UN Women Country Representative for Malawi Letty Chiwara hailed the government for strides it is making in empowering women and ensuring that they are given decision-making positions.
She said this when she joined Minister of Gender and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati at a press briefing ahead of the joint meeting of gender ministers in the Southern African Development Community.
Chiwara said, in recent years, Malawi has registered several successes in terms of women leadership and that there is a need to build on them to address the gender gap that exists in various sectors.
“Malawi has made tremendous strides in terms of gender equality. We see that the current leadership has prioritised women in so many senior positions and it has to be hailed for that…
“However, I must say that we still have a challenge ahead of us to start allocating resources in the right places and addressing the gender gaps. That is the only way we can move forward,” Chiwara said.
On her part, Kaliati, who chairs the Sadc Gender Ministerial Block, said, in order to build on the successes, there was a need to eradicate GBV.
“We have a number of programmes we are implementing to empower our women and we would like to do more and highlight the actions,” she said.
Maybe, after highlighting the actions, Malawi can engage an extra-gear in women empowerment efforts, with no chance for turning back on its commitments mid-way through the journey.