MALAWI: Women's Voices to the Fore in New Development Policy

  • by Claire Ngozo (lilongwe)
  • Inter Press Service

Up to 27 percent of Malawi’s women have never attended school compared to only 16 percent of males, according to Malawi’s 2008 population and housing census. The United Nations says health indicators continue to be worse for women. The country’s maternal mortality rate is at 807 deaths per 100,000 births -- among the worst in Africa.

The first MDGS, which has guided the country’s development agenda since 2006 and expires this year, attempted to translate the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including those on women, education and health, into a local context. However, the plan placed an emphasis on investment, especially agricultural and industrial development, and so many women are as disadvantaged today as they were five years ago.

'Women continue to die at an alarming rate, especially in childbirth, as they do not have access to health facilities. They mostly live in rural communities where clinics are far apart. When they encounter complications they have little chance of survival. Maternal mortality represents the largest health inequity in the world,' worries Faustace Chirwa, executive director of a local NGO, the National Women's Lobby Group (NWLG).

The low level of literacy among women worsens matters, says Chirwa. 'Many women, especially from the rural areas, fail to participate in development work because they have never been to school. Their voice is excluded from decisions that eventually affect them. They are not involved in community development initiatives because they are not empowered and they also fail to demand their rights.'

Ganizo Makwiti, 39, from Malawi’s southern district of Machinga in Chiuta area, is frustrated with poor access to education for girls.

'I was never educated because my parents felt uncomfortable to send me to the school, which is a walking distance of one and half hours from our home. There is a forest in between and they said it was unsafe for me.

'My two brothers were still able to go because men are seen as stronger and braver than women. Now they both work as teachers and are better off than me,' Makwiti explains. She ended up getting married at 16 and now has six children aged between 22 and 7. Her husband died three years ago and she is struggling to look after four of the children.

'All my four daughters dropped out of school because of the distance to school. Two have since married. I know they will end up as poor as I am. We need assistance from government to bring schools closer,' Makwiti says.

Chirwa, believes that investing in women and girls will set the arena for long-term economic growth that will eventually reduce inequality between men and women and reduce poverty.

NWLG works with other civil society organisations and the Ministry of Gender in making women’s voices heard through community participation, networking and partnerships and the main goal is to empower women and to improve their status.

'We are assisting women in the rural areas to demand their rights so that government prioritises their needs. Issues of education and health rank high as women’s needs,' Chirwa asserted.

NWLG also blames the negative situation facing women on the absence of local government councillors.

Since the multiparty dispensation in 1994, the country has held local government elections only once, in 1995, and the mandate of the councillors expired in 2005. Yet Malawi’s Constitution stipulates, under Section 147 sub section 5, that local government elections shall take place in the third week of May in the year following general elections. General elections were held in May 2009 and as such, the local elections were due in May 2010.

President Bingu wa Mutharika moved the local election date to April this year but he has since fired the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) saying an audit of the Commission showed it was unable to account for millions of dollars meant for the 2011 elections.

Meanwhile, the country’s Secretary to the Treasury, Joseph Mwanamvekha, this week local media that he was unsure of when the elections would be held because preparatory activities for the polls were off track due to the suspension of MEC.

'It looks like we are not going to have local councillors anytime soon and our only hope is to have women’s issues addressed in the MGDS which is being developed now,' says Chirwa.

There is some hope that Malawian women’s needs will be incorporated in the MGDS II. Government, through the Ministry of Development Planning and Cooperation has, since last September, been carrying out nationwide consultations on what the blueprint should contain and prioritise.

Many NGOs, including the NGO Coalition on Child Rights -- a network of seven strong local non-governmental organisations — are, among other issues, lobbying for more schools and the improvement of sanitary facilities so that more girls stay in schools.

The Minister of Development Planning and Cooperation has since assured the country, through the local press, that money to implement the MGDS II will be allocated in the 2011/2012 national budget to be released in June 2011.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service