The country’s Constitution confirms the government’s responsibility to ensure that all Malawians realise their right to development. However, in this Friday Shaker, YOHANE SYMON analyses how the right to food and economic development is reserved for a few individuals in the country.
For 79-year-old Alidi Mwema of Kubuli Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Namavi, Mangochi District, economic independence and equality of opportunities remain a farfetched dream.
Mwema said she struggles to source food for the better part of a year.
Her life is a real struggle such that as of October this year, Mwema, her 81-year-old husband and six grandchildren could not afford proper food.
Instead, Mwema has been surviving on nsima prepared from maize husks, usually served once a day.
However, she and her family got a relief from October to November due to the availability mangoes.
“Of late, we have been surviving on boiled mangoes for breakfast and lunch. We only have nsima at night so that we can wake up with energy for farming,” she said.
But now with the mango season over in her area, life is tough for Mwema and her family—they are back to the painful routine of a single meal a day.
And children are the hardest hit.
Twice a week, Mwema’s granddaughter, 19-year-old Esnart Ibrah, who is a divorced mother of two, goes around nearby maize mills looking for maize husks to buy or collect after being left by people.
On a lucky day, Esnart collects the husks free-of-charge.
But in most cases, the husks are sold at K100 per kilogramme or K500 a pail of five litres.
In her area, demand for maize husks in high.
After struggling to find maize husks, Esnart and her granny face another challenge of finding money to pay at a maize mill.
And in the absence of money, Esnart said they pound the husks manually and turn them into flour.
“We survive on piece work. As you can see, Abiti Alidi [Mwema] is old and cannot manage to work. So, it means we need to take care of her. It is very hard for us,” Esnart said.
Mwema’s family is among thousands of households whose next meal remains a mystery.
To them the right to food does not exist.
Sadly, children have been forced out of school in search of food.
Some young girls have been forced into arranged marriages just to find a man to feed them.
Esnart is such a girl who dropped out of school while in Standard Seven to find a man to take care of her after struggling with poverty at her grandmother’s place.
“I thought that by marrying, I would be happy. But the man I married left for Mozambique to work in farms. He never returned. We are told that he married another woman there,” she said.
On many occasions, President Peter Mutharika has been insisting that nobody will die of hunger under his watch in Malawi.
At the moment, nobody has been reported dead of hunger.
But Mwema, her family members and millions of other Malawians could be dying of hunger related ailments.
To wade off hunger, the government introduced Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) during the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s rule.
A few years after that, Malawi became a food basket and even exported the staple grain to neighbouring countries.
But the success was short-lived.
The country immediately went back to where it belongs. A food insecure nation. Fisp rarely targets all the underprivileged.
For five consecutive years, Mwema or any member of her family has not received Fisp coupons, which has been provided to only 40 households in her village.
“We do not receive coupons. Our names do not come out so we cannot force things,” she said while pealing vegetables.
Her problems are similar to those of other people in her village.
Their Group Village Head (GVH) Kabuli confirms the trouble with Fisp allocation amid deep rooted poverty in her village.
Kabuli expressed fear that people in her village might die of hunger this year because they did not harvest enough.
“My area has 18 villages but only a handful receive coupons. Most of the people who get coupons are well-to-do. There is nothing we can do because government officials choose the beneficiaries,” she said.
She added that there was need to change the way beneficiaries for Fisp are selected to ensure that only deserving people benefit from the programme.
“At the moment, the reality is that next year, we will struggle due to hunger more than this year because people might not harvest enough due to lack of fertiliser. In addition, most of the people are farming in other people’s farms to find something to eat,” she said.
Kabuli also fears that relief food which people get is not enough to sustain them.
Just like Mwema, GVH Kabuli expressed ignorance about the Constitutional provision demanding the government to fulfill most of the critical rights, especially right to food.
“We regard issues of the law to be for the police and the government officials only. Even if we knew that the government has violated our rights, where can we go and complain against the government? It is very difficult for us to claim our human rights from the government,” she said.
Last month, Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) started distributing relief food items to affected households identified under Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac).
This year, 1.1 million Malawians have been identified by Mvac to be food insecure.
Dodma started food distribution with Nsanje, Balaka and Zomba districts, which are said to be the hardest hit.
It is expected that distribution will be extended to other 12 additional districts between December and next month.
But when Dodma was launching this year’s lean period food distribution exercise early November, Secretary for Disaster, Wilson Mollen, revealed that the department faces a funding deficit of K31 billion from the required K38 billion to fully support the 1.1 million food insecure people across the country.
A big proportion of Malawi’s 17.5 million population lives in rural areas where access to food is a challenge.
Poverty has settled among them such that they no longer regard it as their constitutional right to be assisted by the government to be economically stable.
However, the picture on the ground presents a different scenario suggesting that more people face hunger this year.
Spontaneous assessment has shown that this year, as has been the case in many years, millions of Malawians face acute food shortage thereby unable to claim some of their human rights.
Most people, particularly those in rural areas, seem ignorant of most constitutional obligations the government has on citizens.
All this despite that chapter four, section 30, sub-section two reads: “The State shall take all necessary measures for the realisation of the right to development. Such measures shall include, amongst other things, equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources, education, health services, food, shelter, employment and infrastructure.
“The State shall take measures to introduce reforms aimed at eradicating social injustices and inequalities. The State has a responsibility to respect the right to development and to justify its policies in accordance with this responsibility.
It is clear that persistent food shortages and economic inequalities facing Malawi annually deny millions of Malawians their chance to enjoy such constitutional rights.
Mangochi District Civic Education Manager for National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, Turner Banda, said stakeholders sometimes fail to fully enlighten the rural people on the roles departments and agencies can play to fulfil the government’s mandate on people.
Banda said issues of the Constitution are not shared fully with people.
“It is unfortunate that there is a perception that the government does the people a favour when it performs some of its mandates. People are made to thank the government for fulfilling its constitutional mandate on them. This needs to be corrected,” he said.
Banda believes that vigorous civic educating on people’s rights can help make them aware of how they can demand their rights from the authorities.
However, the government’s spokesperson, Mark Botomani, said Capital Hill is doing all it can to ensure that all Malawians enjoy their right to food and development as provided for in the Constitution.
Botomani said as a short-term measure, the government provides food to all people that are declared food insecure through Mvac’s annual report.
“When there is an emergency, you are aware that we have a department [Dodma] that responds to disasters. We are continuing with the commitment of making sure that nobody dies of hunger and we are very committed to fulfill this mandate,” he said.
On a long term basis to improve economic independence, developmental equity and right to food for Malawians, Botomani said the government will continue providing subsidised farm inputs to local farmers who survive on farming.
“We are aware of some challenges to do with Fisp. But our stand is to continue with the programme so that we can help change lives of people who depend on farming. We are engaging some experts to make sure that the programme in improved,” he said.
However, Botomani acknowledged that the government cannot manage to fully support or respond to all needy people knowing that the issue of hunger is being caused by some climatic shocks which are beyond the government’s control.
On equitable national development, Botomani said the current administration implements projects and programmes based on people’s needs in a particular area.
He said the National Planning Commission, which has been formed as part of the government’s reforms, will ensure that in the long run, there are equal opportunities for all Malawians.
He said making sure that Malawians are economically empowered and access quality social services such as health and education can improve food security, which in the end, can ensure that all Malawians enjoy their constitutional right to food and equity.
However, despite all such efforts what is clear is that many people lack basics, the gap between the rich and poor is widening and most poor people do not even know their rights.