Data collected on gender reveal that gender inequalities still prevail in many aspects of Malawi’s population. In most cases, women are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts in the access to different things.
The 2008 Population and Housing Census report released in 2010 states that women continue facing hurdles in accessing higher education, literacy, ownership of housing and household assets as well as in such household basics as safe drinking water, cooking and lighting fuel.
The report further argues that gender disparities were less pronounced among the urban residents and more pronounced among the rural residents.
In short, rural women have been on the receiving end of hardships.
Bertha Chilamba, a 32-year old woman from Khombe Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chiseka in Lilongwe, says women in the area are facing a lot of problems.
“We are not given what we need. It is hard to get water, especially in dry season. We walk long distances to get the water. We need enough support from government and its partners so that the hurdles we face are eased,” Chilamba says.
In an effort to improve the welfare of women, an initiative called Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) was launched a few years ago. It is a self-organised network or alliance of national rural women’s movements, assemblies, grassroots organisations and chapters of mixed peasant unions, federations and movements across eight countries in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region.
Over a period of four years, RWA has gathered together poor, rural women into regional RWAs; into international platforms coinciding with major multi-lateral events such as climate change’s Conference of Parties (CoP) 17 and Rio +20; and into regional lobbying processes that have run parallel to Sadc meetings as well.
The national chapters of the RWA have also organised their own lobbying events and activities to coincide with important national meetings, summits and on international days such as International Rural Women’s Day and International Women’s Day.
It is an indisputable fact that rural women, the majority of whom depend on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihoods, make up over a quarter of the total world population. However, they live precarious lives despite the fact that they are key to food security.
One of the women trying to ease the hurdles she faces in her daily life is Sipelina Lackson of the same T/A Chiseka.
She has been trying to make the best use of her small vegetable garden near her home to plant such crops as maize, beans and some vegetables. She, however, says she needs more help.
“I took manure and applied in the garden. I have been getting beans, vegetables and maize from this small garden. However, I need more support so that this type of farming grows into something big. Apart from growing these crops for household needs, I should also be selling so that I use the money for my other needs,” Lackson says.
Currently, the RWA is playing multifaceted roles, including the production of agricultural crops, tending animals, processing and preserving food, employment in agricultural or other rural enterprises, collecting fuel and water as well as caring for family and maintaining their homes.
However, women face greater land constraints than men and most do not own land or have access to rented land. Moreover, the land women do have access to is often of poorer quality and in smaller plots.
Greater poverty, lower levels of education and lack of credit among women make rural women more dependent on the government’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp). Regionally constituted RWA argues that Fisp has become a political tool and does little to improve the situation of rural women constructively.
Alice Kachere, a Lilongwe woman, who is also RWA Malawi Chapter Ambassador, is all praises to the initiative.
“Farmers know the rights they have. They are being made aware of the new land laws. As these changes are coming, we are very prepared to safeguard our right. One of the things we have recently done was to petition the Ministry of Lands over the issue of Land Bills. We are happy that when the bills were taken to Parliament, most of our concerns were addressed. And in the few remaining areas, we will continue fighting for amendments so that we have land laws that are responsive to the needs of women,” Kachere says.
She adds: We want women to be holding decision-making positions. We need to see more reforms in Farm Input Subsidy Programme. We will therefore engage relevant officials to revisit the issue of fertiliser coupons.”
Landnet National Coordinator Emmanuel Mlaka says gatherings like these are important in uplifting the welfare of women.
“There may be some bottlenecks but that does not mean that the new land laws should not become operational. Along the way, amendments will be made. In these land laws, there are provisions that are put to protect the rights of women. Women therefore should sensitise each other about these new land laws. It is therefore pleasing to see women gathering so that they share ideas,” Mlaka says.
National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi Head of Policy and Communication Beatrice Makwenda says through these platforms, the welfare of women farmers will be enhanced.
“Rural women farmers have to be meeting quite often to discuss issues affecting them. We believe that through this, they can build a stronger force and push for better policies that will uplift their welfare. There are a number of organisations working with rural women farmers,” Makwenda says.
She adds: “Through this platform, women have been empowered. Their voices are being heard. And they are also to share the ideas they get from such gatherings with other women.”