Malawian woman carrying bananas for sale (Photo: Indra S.)

 

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.

– Rumi

Fact: Malawi had its female president, Joyce Banda, from 2012 to 2014 [ahead of Canada].

Fact: In Malawi, more women than men are represented in agriculture, one of the most labour-intensive industries [II].

 

Despite these seemingly “ahead-of-the-game” facts, why has there been an emphasis (at least at the international organization/donor level) on gender equality as if there is still something to fix?

 

It’s not quite a simple, black and white answer, so sit tight.

 

The United Nations (UN) defines “gender equality” as providing women equal access to resources and opportunities including but not limited to education, health care, and decent work.

 

Making note of that definition, another fact is that Malawian women do majority of the labour in these rigorous careers but do not get as much income as men.

 

This fight for gender equality is not just one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but it is one of Malawi’s five main focuses. But how does this trickle down to organizations within Malawi? Besides WUSC’s emphasis on targeting women through mandate specific activities, I haven’t heard much talk about gender equality within my organization.

 

In fact, after discussing this topic with some Malawians, it seems as though many didn’t see that there were gender inequalities before President Banda created the Gender Equality Act in 2013. Furthermore, after they were highlighted in the Act and quite a few initiatives were created to better gender equality, they feel like it is DEFINITELY not an issue.

 

So, what does this mean? There seems to be a disconnect between international organizations’ objectives and grassroot organizations’ actual experience. Just Googling ‘gender equality Malawi’, a majority of the results are from all of these international organizations (i.e. USAID, UN, etc.)—mind you they usually have a large amount of funding to be shown on the first few pages of search results.

 

But my question is, how many other programs and development initiatives occurring in Malawi are experiencing a similar disconnect?

As you walk around the capital city, you can see the gender imbalance in broad daylight. The predominant gender crowding the streets, driving tuk tuks and other modes of transport, and selling products are males. Does this mean that gender inequality exists? Not necessarily, but you’re probably wondering where the women are?

 

I asked the same question. Most women in Malawi are house wives; their job is to take care of the house by cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children.

So, what does this mean? Does it mean women are put at a disadvantage? Does this mean that gender equality doesn’t exist?

 

Fact: In recent years, more Malawian women have gotten involved in entrepreneurship.

 

This is said to have been encouraged by the gender equality push to help women through capacity building and empowerment through more accessible loans and skills training for women. These opportunities in entrepreneurship not only allow women to continue taking care of the household but also earn an income at flexible hours.

 

But don’t be deceived, just because opportunities are created doesn’t mean the barriers to entering into those opportunities have been addressed. Culturally, men are the “breadwinners” and are to support the family. Culturally, women need not participate in business undertakings. So, overcoming the cultural norms act as a huge barrier.

 

I keep finding this discrepancy between Malawian cultural norms and international NGOs’ demand for development. As an outsider it seems like culture and development clash, but is that really so?

 

Many Malawians see these international NGOs’ development demands as a chance for something better. While at first the interventions and calls for change that development often demands may conflict with cultural values, adjustments are often made to accommodate the opportunity for a better life. As seen with women engaging in employment, they can now help the household especially since many of the basic needs in Malawi have increased in cost of the past 10 years [VII].

 

Men who once complained that their wives were not putting enough effort into household chores because of the side business are now happy for the contribution that the women provide.

 

Fact: Something good can come from something that seemed awful at first.

Fact: Gender wage gap is common across the globe (just check out the facts on Canada) and while Malawi is no exception, there is hope.

 

You should know that, as the definition suggests, gender equality encompasses more than financial differences, this post simply provides one perspective and glimpse of the gender equality situation in Malawi. Also, it is important to note that these are experiences and thoughts inspired by Malawians who live in urban parts of Malawi, Lilongwe City, thus do not necessarily represent all Malawians’ perceptions and experiences.


CREDITS & REFERENCES:

[I] Tenthani, R. (2012). Joyce Banda: Malawi’s first female president. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-17662916

[II] Mudege, N. N., Mdege, N., Abidin, P. E., & Bhatasara, S. (2017). The role of gender norms in access to agricultural training in Chikwawa and Phalombe, Malawi. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(12), 1689-1710.

[III] United Nations. (n.d.). Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.Retrieved from Sustainable Development Goals: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

[IV] United Nations. (n.d.). About the Sustainable Development Goals.Retrieved from Sustainable Development Goals: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[V] WUSC. (n.d.). 2016/2017 Annual Report.Retrieved from WUSC: https://annualreport.wusc.ca

[VI] Banda, J. (2013). Retrieved from https://womenlawyersmalawi.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/gender-equality-act.pdf

[VII] Dowson, J. (2016). Female Entrepreneurs in Malawi. Retrieved from Medium: https://medium.com/perspectives2016-17/female-entrepreneurs-in-malawi-8d642670e6dd

[VIII] Centre for Social Concern. (2018). The Basic Needs Basket Surveys Publications Data. Retrieved from Centre for Social Concern: http://www.cfscmalawi.org/bnb_pub.html

[IX] Canadian Women’s Foundation. (n.d.). The Facts about the Gender Wage Gap in Canada. Retrieved from Canadian Women’s Foundation: https://www.canadianwomen.org/the-facts/the-wage-gap/

 

OTHER RELATED LINKS AND ARTICLES:

Tiessen, R. (2004). Re‐inventing the Gendered Organization: Staff Attitudes towards Women and Gender Mainstreaming in NGOs in Malawi. Gender, Work & Organization, 11(6), 689-708.