Women in Malawi: Holding up half the sky

On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Nicole Johnston reports on the formidable Women’s Forum not accepting the status quo in Malawi.

As the world’s decision makers embark on the road to Copenhagen, the oft-repeated refrain is that climate change will hit Africa “first and worst”. What we don’t hear enough about is the enormous additional burden it is already placing on rural African women.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries and more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Add climate change to the mix and the combination is deadly – particularly for women.

“Poverty is the cause of HIV here,” says Maria Gondwe of the Karonga Women’s Forum. “If the rains are too heavy or if they don’t come, then the yield is poor. Since 2001 we have noticed the weather changing. Floods come and wash our rice away and because we are farmers we don’t have the money to buy more seed. We are already in poverty, then that adds hunger.”

“It is getting hotter so we have to work shorter hours, which means we cultivate a smaller area and can grow less food,” adds Rachel Kasambara. “It is harder to live by farming than it was 10 years ago. I have grandchildren as well as orphans living in my house so there is a shortage of food. Maybe we will get a meal once a day. Sometimes we just eat a sweet potato and drink water before we sleep.”

It is considered the responsibility of women and girls to ensure there is food in the house, and as it becomes increasingly difficult to survive on agriculture, many women are forced to sell sex. “Some parents tell their daughters ˜there is no food, go find some money to eat’,” explains Forum chairperson Caroline Malema. “Then the girls come home with money and with sugar and the parents are happy. But once she is infected they chase her and say ˜go back with this thing to where you got it’. Or they marry a 14-year-old girl to an old man in his fifties because he has cattle. If she refuses they throw her out and she ends up as a prostitute.”

And women with husbands and children are also often unable to protect themselves from the virus: “The men say condoms are for prostitutes. If you insist, they will accuse you of having other men and divorce you. But they are the ones who go out and act carelessly and bring this [HIV] home with them,” says Gondwe angrily.

“Women in the more remote villages don’t have money to get to the clinic to get ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] so sometimes they will walk 50km to get the drugs.”

And double standards are rife says Malema: “Many men are HIV positive but don’t tell their wives. They will hide their pills and take them in secret. But if she finds she is HIV positive and wants to take ART he will chase her and accuse her of being a prostitute.”

But the Women’s Forum is not accepting the status quo, and is fighting a formidable battle on a number of fronts – from seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence to challenging gender dynamics. “We as women are not counted in Malawi,” says Malema. “They say a woman cannot be above a man. We aim to empower women – especially the younger generation – whether they are discriminated against for being HIV positive or have been raped, or want to go into politics.” The forum has successfully campaigned for a local woman, Beatrice Nyankonde, who is now running for election as a member of parliament.

The courage and generosity displayed by the members of the forum is astounding, particularly as they have no funds except those they raise from doing yet more work. What they do have is human capital, and a deep sense of solidarity with other women. “We make mats and knit baby jackets and sell them,” says Eliza Mbale, the forum’s treasurer. “With that money we are able to buy soap for orphaned children and widows. We help them with household chores and work in their fields so they will be able to grow some food. We have no finance or other way of helping so the little we have we try to share.”

Queen Kayira’s story

“My name is Queen Kayira and I am from Malawi, which you know is a poor country. I am a widow with five children and my husband died in 2000 leaving me with nothing. This changing of the climate is giving us a lot of troubles, because we can no longer make small businesses like selling bananas and cassava.

I decided to go the bottle store to find a man so I could find money to support my family. Instead, I found HIV. Men refuse if you want to use a condom; they say it is like eating a sweet with the plastic wrapper still on it.

I stopped doing sex work two years ago. I changed my behaviour because I learned I was HIV+ and I didn’t want to infect other people. I know if men sleep with me without a condom they will take that virus back to their wives.

Now I am a volunteer at the Karonga Women’s Forum. I sell tomatoes and bread to feed my children and I also knit things to sell, but I am still suffering.

I am afraid that other women, especially young girls will turn to sex work to feed their families. Because we are not getting good crops any more girls are under pressure to find food. This pressure is only on girls, not boys, because girls are seen as useless and we are not valued. While girls are selling themselves, the boys are going to school or being taught skills like carpentry.”


See also:
* Trying to give sex workers safer alternatives in Malawi
* Project to help Malawi’s sex workers – BBC audio


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