Wednesday, July 06, 2011

No independence for women

Today, July 6, 2011, Malawi is commemorating 47 years of independence. Instead of celebrating, many Malawians are bemoaning the miserable living conditions they have to contend with; erratic water supply, frequent and lengthy power outages and fuel shortages at the pump.
As I sit and reflect on this Independence Day, I can’t help but sympathise with my fellow women staying in the urban areas of the country; how independent are we? Are we really free? The obvious answer for me is “a complete no”.
Urban women are hit hardest by the crisis facing the country; the burden lies with them to find solutions on how households should survive these challenges.
As I stood on a fuel queue yesterday, I could not avoid overhearing a number of men complaining on how the lack of diesel and petrol is “restricting them in the house”. By the way, the fuel queue is the best source of information at this moment – we are parking our cars hours before the tanker arrives and one gets to listen to different kinds of conversations.
One man bitterly expressed his displeasure on how he will be confined at home instead of spending quality time celebrating July 6 at his usual drinking hole with his group of friends.
“They are rationing fuel at this filling station as such I know that I will not be able to travel much tomorrow so I will have to stay at home and listen to my wife whining all day long about money problems and what she would have loved to have in the house. My kids will also keep on bothering me with their usual noise,” worried the man.
Leaning on his beautiful, white Toyota Corolla, the man also bemoaned the tendency by the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM) to switch off power on holidays.
“I am sure we will have no power for the most part of the day tomorrow and I will not be able to watch the football play-offs on television either,” the man continued, now sounding really upset at the prospect of spending his day at home.
I could not help it but imagine the man’s poor wife toiling at home while the husband was only thinking about escaping the homestead on a day suitable for quality family time.
With no power, I could just see the woman struggling to light up a charcoal burner as early as 6 AM to prepare water for bathing for the household and then cook breakfast – being a holiday; the breakfast must really be elaborate and sumptuous so that the husband does not get very worked up early in the morning.
I could just imagine that the only male assistance the woman would receive would be to push her to work more quickly as she is reminded that breakfast is late.
Of course this was just in my imagination but I know for sure that many men in our society employ machoism tendencies especially when they feel restricted.
And of course the water problems which have recently hit the cities are not helping matters for the women. They have to make sure that they keep water in drums everyday or they will have to go around the city looking for the commodity to use for all household chores; washing, bathing, cooking and for cleaning up the house.
Back to fuel problems; many women who go to work are having to risk their lives as they now have to walk in the dark as they trek back from work.
A friend, Gladys Kalumbu, who works within Lilongwe city centre, told me three days ago how she has been walking home late after failing to get on a minibus early enough.
“The fuel crisis means that many minibuses are no longer on the road as such many people who use public transport are struggling to get home now,” said Kalumbu, who has to get on two different minibuses before she arrives home.
Walking at night has always been risky especially within Lilongwe.
“I am scared most of the time to walk from the bus stop to my house. It takes me 15 minutes to get home from the bus stop,” Kalumbu said.
Right now, life is not simple for the urban women. More than anything, I for one, would like to see a quick end to these problems and experience independence from hardship.
As they remain standing and continue to survive the struggle against erratic water supply, frequent and lengthy power outages, fuel shortages at the pump combined with social expectations, I salute the women of Malawi’s urban areas. Today, they are “The Skirt”.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The little homemaker

Patuma Mjahito from Malawi’s lakeshore area of Malombe in Mangochi is a very reliable handmaid; she does every household chore available in her homestead. Waking up at 5 AM every day; Patuma has to light up a fire outdoors using firewood – she uses the fire to boil water and cook porridge for breakfast – her father, mother and two of her younger siblings use the boiled water for washing up. When it rains, she lights up a charcoal fire on a burner which she takes indoors to boil water and cook. Patuma is only seven years old.

Although she looks frail and half-starved, Patuma is still in charge of taking care of her household while her father goes off the whole day working in other people’s fields as he tries to raise money for his family’s upkeep. The young girl’s mother toils in the family’s field where she grows maize, the country’s staple and leguminous crops to feed the family.

Back at home, Patuma, who has never seen the inside of a classroom, is left to look after her 4-month old brother and her sister aged three.

Patuma is one of many children across Malawi involved in work that is not fit for them. According to a Plan International report of August 2009 titled "Hard Work, Long Hours and Little Pay", Malawi has the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa. Up to 88.9 percent of the children in the age group 5-14 work in the agricultural sector.

The United Nations indicates that around one in three children are engaged in child labour in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Blame it on poverty,” Patuma’s mother, Khadija said. “She is the eldest in this family and she has to play her part in keeping this family together. She does not do any agricultural work as it is more tedious and so we leave her home to take care of her younger relatives.”

Khadija spends almost half the day in the field before venturing into the bush where she collects twigs which Patuma uses to light up the fire.

“She is also in charge of making lunch for the family – my husband rarely comes home for lunch and so Patuma makes less food then,” explained Khadija.

Patuma’s father, Chadwick, makes an average of $20 per month and the money is used to buy things like salt, second-hand clothes and paraffin which the household uses to light up the house at night.

There is no hope that Patuma will escape the poverty cycle that is tormenting her family. She does not have a chance to go to school and all she knows is that she has to be responsible for her family’s welfare.

Patuma is “the skirt”.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Naphiri ndiwe Galu

Naphiri - my wife - you are a dog

The men are wearing zibiya – a skirt of some sort that is mostly worn by men who dance Ingoma.
Ngoma is well known among the Ngonis, a tribe in some parts of Malawi especially the Central districts of Ntcheu and Dedza. It is a warrior dance – the men dance stamping their feet to the ground; the women ulutate, clapping their hands and cheering the men on.
Some songs are led by men and one of the popular songs is titled “Naphiri ndiwe galu” which literally means “Naphiri you are a dog”.
The song is about a man who is reprimanding a woman for cooking what was supposed to be bean soup but ended up being dried beans.
“Waziphika bwanji nyemba; zopanda msuzi,” – how can bean soup have no soup in it?” Querries the man in the song. “Naphiri ndiwe galu”.......”Naphiri you are a dog”.
“Lu lu lu lu” – the women ululate while clapping hands for the men.
The big question here is: “why should women be happy with a song like that? Why should they rejoice over a song that belittles a fellow woman? Why should they clap hands and cheer men on as they stomp onto the ground showing off their muscles as they are scantily dressed – showing how strong they are – strong over a dog? Warrior over a dog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Skirt

This skirt is being worn by so many women in Malawi – the average women who mostly are vulnerable, poor and are facing social injustice on a daily basis.
The skirt costs just about $2 – very cheap – just like many women in Malawi are treated – cheap.

I feel for these women. They put in so much but get back very little. They are the homemakers but most times are treated as second-class citizens.
Most of them are facing domestic violence – they are abused left, right and centre.
During this month of November, I want to advocate for the abused women of Malawi - today, this blog is speaking against gender-based violence as an add-on voice to the movement against gender-based violence.

“Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t play fair. Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you."

During the month of November and during the 16 Days of Activism – from November 25, 2010 and December 10, 2010, I am joining other activists around the world to to emphasise that such violence is a human rights violation.

Many Malawian women are experiencing violence as they are swimming against the current.................................................................

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Africa Steps Up the Fight Against Maternal and Child Deaths

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

The very survival of women and children in Africa may depend on the newly-launched Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA). According to latest estimates by the African Union (AU), over the next ten years there will be 2.5 million maternal deaths, another 2.5 million child deaths and 49 million maternal disabilities in Africa alone if urgent actions are not taken.

Around the world, a woman dies every minute from pregnancy-related causes. Globally, there are more than 500,000 maternal deaths per year, the majority of which are in Africa where in many places the maternal mortality rate (MMR) is as high as 1,000 deaths per 100,000 live births. And these death threats are only increasing: one in every 16 African women faces the lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy and delivery-related complications, particularly those from marginalized communities and those living in poverty.

On May 7th, I attended the AU's launch of CARMMA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its theme, Africa cares: no woman should die while giving life, reflects a campaign designed to accelerate the availability and use of universally accessible quality health services, including those related to reproductive and sexual health.
The AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, Bience Gawanas, describes the maternal mortality rate in Africa as “unacceptably high.” She says CARMMA aims to enhance political leadership and commitment at national levels to reducing maternal and child deaths. By identifying and working with national champions, the campaign will leverage local resources to mobilize action.

Gawanas says the campaign will help raise and maintain awareness and appropriate response at global, continental, regional and national levels to ensure that the best practices of countries which have significantly reduced maternal mortality rates are replicated elsewhere through exchanges and visits by health professionals.

“It is my hope, through this campaign, that we will ensure that our renewed efforts save the lives of women who should not die while giving life,” she says. “We should ensure accountability; every single loss of a mother’s life should be reported. In this regard, it is essential to establish and institutionalize maternal, infant and child mortality audits.”

Gawanas says that if every maternal and child is reported, experts will be able follow up on the specific causes and work on prevention.

For Agnes Mapapa, 67, from southern Malawi, the campaign is welcome news – her first-born daughter died while giving birth in 2007 because the nearest health center is some 35 kilometers away. “She bled to death soon after giving birth. There was no skilled attendant to help her and we could not get to the health center as it is too far away from our village,” says Mapapa. Her newborn granddaughter died just seven days later.

“I also lost a niece in child-birth last year,” she continues. “I have three other daughters of child-bearing age who are already married and I fear that they might face death or disability if they [get] pregnant. We need help and this new campaign might bring salvation to my community.” Mapapa hopes that with the campaign, a clinic will be built within her area so that pregnant women can easily access maternity services.

Malawi’s MRR is 807 deaths per 100,000 live births, making it one of Africa’s highest. It is second only to war-torn Sierra Leone. The good news is that Malawi is among the first batch of countries that will conduct government-led national launches and get technical support from the AU and UN agencies in the next three months. Other countries leading in the launch effort include Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa.

Malawi already has initiatives promoted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the country’s Ministry of Health where traditional leaders and their communities are empowered to create their own community-based campaigns to improve maternal and child health. UNFPA reproductive health officer, Juliana Lunguzi says CARMMA will strengthen these programs.

“Traditional chiefs, who command a lot of respect in Malawi’s villages, are used as champions for promoting the maternal and child health initiatives. The chiefs facilitate the formation of local village committees on safe motherhood and family planning. The committees encourage pregnant women to seek antenatal care, monitor the health and growth of new-born babies and are also in charge hygiene and sanitation in the villages,” says Lunguzi.

Reports from UNFPA Malawi indicate that these initiatives are working. As just one example, Pitala Village in the country’s central district of Mchinji has seen no maternal deaths in the past two years. Before the initiative, it was not strange to hear that a pregnant woman or a newborn child had died.

Speaking on behalf of African government at CARMMA’s launch, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi says it is regrettable that women and children continued to die from preventable causes. He emphasizes the need for a universal and adequate health service system for all African countries saying it will not be possible for the continent to achieve the Millennium Development Goals without addressing the issue of maternal and child mortality.

“We should come up with solutions that work in the resource constrained environment we live in,” he says. “Most of the health problems in Africa can be tied to preventable diseases so emphasis should be given to preventive measures, which are relatively cheap.”

Meanwhile the United Nations (UN) - through the UNFPA, World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) - has thrown its weight behind CARMMA, vowing to support it fully.

UNFPA Africa Regional Director Bunmi Makinwa told journalists at the launch that the UN is convinced that the battle against maternal mortality could be won if there is effective coordination among all players.

He says the high incidence of maternal death in Africa must change. “Is this something that should continue happening? No,” he says. “It’s really sad that one of the worst things that could happen to a woman in Africa is being pregnant.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

MALAWI: Poverty Uppermost in Voters' Minds

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

When Malawians go to vote on May 19, they are expected to put their cross next to the party they believe will do most to reduce poverty. Political campaigns in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections have centred around poverty, agriculture, food security and employment.

Margret Kalibu lives on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. Her husband died last year, leaving her with seven children the ages of two and 15. With one less income, the family survives on only one meal a day, mainly porridge.

Kalibu says her husband died of malaria because he could not access treatment – they did not have the money for him to travel to the nearest public hospital, located 25 kilometres from his home.

As Kalibu goes to vote this week, she says she will choose a president and a member of parliament who will make sure to improve the economic and social well-being of her family.

"I want a president and an MP who has the poor people’s interest at heart. I want my family to have access to food, clothing, good health facilities and proper housing. I want my children to have access to proper education," said Kalibu.

Most Malawians going to the polls will cast their votes based on similar considerations, reckons the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organisations, community-based organisations, media, trade unions and academia.

Basic needs, such as food and employment, are key issues in Malawi. Up to 65 percent of the country’s 13.1 million people are living below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira says many Malawians will vote for political parties that campaign for poverty reduction, improved health care, increased infrastructure and better education standards.

Agriculture is another important issue that will determine people’s choice in the elections, Kumbatira says. Eighty-five percent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and the agricultural industry generates up to 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

"During their campaigns, the front-runners in the presidential election have been talking about the importance of boosting agricultural productivity. Most people will take the issue of food security seriously when they enter the polling booth to vote," said Kumbatira.

Various opinion polls have indicated as front-runners current president Bingu wa Mutharika, in direct competition with John Tembo, leader of the country’s oldest political grouping, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who has formed a coalition with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the country’s former president, Bakili Muluzi.

The presidential election is being contested by five other candidates: Loveness Gondwe of the National Rainbow Coalition, who is the country’s first female presidential candidate, Alliance for Democracy’s Dindi Gowa Nyasulu, Stanley Masauli of the Republican Party, independent presidential candidate James Nyondo and Kamuzu Chibambo of People's Transformation Party.

The leading political parties are well aware of the need to fight poverty and hunger and improve basic services, such as health and education. During election campaigns in the past few weeks, the MCP, for example, has promised to introduce a universal agricultural subsidy programme, while the DPP has pledged to strengthen an existing subsidy for resource-poor smallholder farmers.

In its manifesto, the MCP says it will support the people of Malawi to feed themselves, clothe themselves, live healthily, lead productive lives and live in decent houses by scrapping taxes on domestic housing materials.

The MCP also promises to overhaul the health system, which is currently seen as a failure, and re-establish professionalism, efficiency and integrity in the civil service. "I want the lives of the people, particularly the poor ones in the villages, to improve," MCP’s Tembo says.

The DPP, on the other hand, claims it has successfully implemented developmental polices in the five years it has been in power and suggests people should vote for the ruling party if they want continued development.

The DPP has also pledged to invest heavily in education by providing more funding to schools and colleges and to be more committed to raising educational standards.

However, political experts are afraid election manifestos may remain lip service. Most campaign promises made by the different parties have been vague, and politicians have refrained from detailing what policies and programmes they will implement to improve service delivery.

"People will be voting while groping in the dark. No party has managed to articulate properly how they will execute their promises and this might encourage people to vote on ethnic lines," said Blessings Chinsinga, political analyst at the University of Malawi.

While agreeing that most Malawians will vote for candidates who promise to tackle poverty, hunger and unemployment, Chinsinga said ethnicity is likely play a role in the elections.

"In the past, we have seen Malawians vote on regional as well as ethnic grounds. They either voted for a president who comes from their area or for a president who they think sympathises with their tribe," he explained.

Christopher Gondwe, a registered voter from Mzuzu in northern Malawi, confirmed Chinsinga’s theory when telling IPS he will vote for a president who is interested in developing the whole country without segregation.

"The north, for example, has been marginalised for a long time. We want a president who will not only develop the two other regions but the north as well," said Gondwe.

Gondwe is unlikely to put his cross next to the name of Malawi’s current president Mutharika who belongs to the Lhomwe tribe of southern Malawi. Mutharika has been repeatedly accused by analysts and politicians, including his main contender Tembo, of giving preference to people from his tribe when appointing cabinet ministers and parastatal organisations.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Separating the ‘‘Ultra-Poor’’ from the Poor - Why?

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

A group of civil society organisations in Malawi is pushing for changes to the country’s controversial social cash transfer scheme which has caused tension in communities as it attempts to separate the poor from the ‘‘very poor’’ in a country where some 65 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day.

Pilot programmes to test the scheme are underway in seven of Malawi’s 27 districts. Cash transfers have been proven to be effective in the reduction of poverty as households use cash in various ways to improve their livelihoods, from spending the money on food to education to agricultural production to even saving money and starting small businesses.

The ministry of women and child development and the ministry of economic planning and development are implementing the social cash transfer scheme, which was launched in September 2006.

Technical and financial assistance for the programme comes from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE), which leads 50 non-governmental organisations advocating for social protection, argues that the scheme is creating problems.

The reason for this is its targeting of a category of ‘‘ultra-poor’’ in a country where most people live below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

IPRSE Director of Programmes and Development Paul Msoma says that the scheme attempts to separate the poorest from the poor. The question that has arisen is, ‘‘who is really poor and who is not poor enough to benefit from the programme’’, Msoma tells IPS in an interview.

IPRSE is concerned that, given the vast numbers of very poor people in Malawi, especially in the rural areas, providing assistance to a few of them will not make a great difference towards the country’s goal of reducing poverty and hunger.

‘‘If you go into a typical Malawi village, almost everyone is very poor yet the cash transfer scheme is targeting very few people,’’ Msoma points out.

The civil society grouping queries the system used to identify beneficiaries as it poses difficulties for communities. Recipients of the money from the scheme are nominated by a local community social protection committee (CSPC) which is composed of community members. These include the traditional leaders of the area and other respected members of the villages.

The CSPC draws up a list of households living in grim conditions and refers this to a district social protection sub-committee (SPSC), made up of social workers and provincial government officials. The SPSC verifies and approves nominations.

This process ‘‘is creating complications. The people who are equally poor are being asked to make decisions to make others better-off. There should be a better way of identifying beneficiaries,’’ contends Msoma.

He explains that the targeting of very few people is also causing ‘‘unnecessary tensions’’ in the poor communities.

In Mchinji, central Malawi, 65-year-old Malita Namalomba laments that her neighbours ‘‘despise’’ her. Namalomba, a widow, looks after seven grandchildren. Two of her children died within two years and she had to adopt her grandchildren.

‘‘I am happy that the cash transfer scheme has enabled me to look after all these children. The money makes me able to feed them all and send them to school,’’ she admits. But she is worried that other families living in poverty are unhappy with not benefiting from the scheme.

‘‘I was lucky that I was identified to benefit from the scheme. All my neighbours are poor and they need similar help. They despise me now and I can’t do anything about it,’’ says Namalomba.

The amount of money disbursed to beneficiaries like Namalomba is dependent on household size. The minimum grant is 4.20 dollars for a household of one person. The scheme also encourages school enrolment: an extra 1.30 dollars is granted for each child enrolled in primary school and 2.60 dollars for children in secondary school.

Nicholas Freeland, programme director at the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), agrees with the local NGOs that some negative lessons have indeed emerged from the pilot social cash transfer scheme.

The RHVP supports policy-makers and practitioners concerned with food security, social protection and vulnerability in southern Africa and is funded by the UK’s department for international development.

‘‘Community-based targeting is open to abuse. It does not work in a Malawian context to identify the most vulnerable people,’’ explains Freeland. This is because there is a little difference between the poorest households.

It is unfair and unethical to select only 10 percent of them to receive a transfer that will ‘‘leapfrog’’ them over almost equally poor members of the community. ‘‘Unless of course you re-target on a regular basis, which is complex and expensive,’’ states Freeland.

Experience in many other countries has shown that the best way to target the poorest in society is not to try to identify them individually but to use categories that are associated with a higher likelihood of poverty, such as elderly people, young infants, the disabled and women.

‘‘Such categories are much more easily understood by recipients and non-recipients alike, much less easy to exploit or corrupt, much simpler to administer and therefore much more politically acceptable,’’ Freeland tells IPS.

Despite these objections by NGOs, the Malawian government is planning on expanding the scheme. It is working on scaling up the cash transfers with an aim to eventually make them available to all districts in the country.

According to a government report, preliminary survey results indicate that the money is ‘‘properly’’ used by beneficiaries as it is invested in meeting people’s immediate, basic needs while some households are able to make some savings from the scheme.

The government has also come up with new guiding principles which include simplifying the programme so that it is well understood by communities.

Meanwhile, IPRSE has vowed to continue lobbying government to revisit the targeting of the social cash transfer scheme. (END/2009)