Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Climate changing agriculture

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

Agnes Boti struggles to bend down as she attempts to replant maize seeds in her garden. Her crop, which was supposed to be food for her family for this whole year, was washed away in February by floods that ravaged Malawi’s Southern Region.
Boti is suffering from malaria, but she says she is feeling better compared to her husband and two children. Soon after the floods, her whole household was afflicted by malaria following an outbreak that hit Chikwawa, the district she stays in.
The woman’s family is among the 190,000 people that were displaced by the floods in January this year. According to Malawi government’s disaster management department, half of the country’s 28 districts were affected by the heavy rains and storms.
“We helplessly run for our lives and watched from a distance as our house and gardens were being washed away by the floods. We lost almost everything that we owned,” laments Boti.
She says her family has been staying in makeshift camps together with a lot of other flood victims.
Crocodile attacks were also on the increase following the flooding of the Shire River, a crocodile-infested river in the southern part of Malawi, according to another flood victim, Maxwell Vizya.
“I was nearly maimed by a crocodile at night right in front of my house which was water-logged followed the heavy rains,” says Vizya. He said the river had overflowed into his village making it a swamp and a new home to crocodiles.
Similar floods occurred in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe since December 2007, with disastrous repercussions for about half a million people in southern Africa. Following the heavy rains and floods, diseases like cholera and malaria claimed further casualties.
In recent years, climatic changes have been widely noted in Malawi. Between 1999 and 2005, the country experienced droughts that wiped out agricultural crops from the country’s fields. Five million of the country’s 13.5 million people were in need of food aid.
Such heavy impairment hit Malawi hard, which generates up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from agriculture and 85 percent of the country’s population depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Ted Chingolopiyo, a farmer from Lilongwe in central Malawi, experienced a fierce water scarcity. “All my crops dried up in the garden before they matured. My family had to survive on wild roots and mice for six months before we got food aid from government.”
Chingolopiyo says his two children, aged five and seven, were treated for malnutrition following the ordeal.
The loss caused by floods and droughts is of great concern to the Malawi government. Minister for Lands and Natural Resources Khumbo Chirwa describes the changes in agriculture fortunes as effects of climate change.
Chirwa says Malawi has, therefore, developed a climate change adaptation strategy, called the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA), to build capacity to cope with climate shocks especially for vulnerable groups such as the farmers.
“The strategy focuses on eight sectors namely agriculture, land use and forestry, fisheries, energy, wildlife, water, human health and gender,” says Chirwa.
The NAPA is being used to implement measures to tackle the effects of climate change. Priorities in the strategy include the creation of buffers for the poor and most vulnerable from effects of climate shocks.

Concrete measures outlined in the NAPA include the restoration of forests in flood-prone areas, as in Boti’s village, to reduce flooding and siltation. This will maintain land fertility and help to develop sustainable livelihoods. One challenge is improving the utilisation of available water sources such as Lake Malawi for irrigation.

The plan of action also highlights improvement of agricultural production by teaching smallholder farmers to use advanced agricultural techniques in soil and water management.
In February this year, President Bingu wa Mutharika launched the NAPA. He said government was to strengthen its response to climate change and integrate environmental and climate risk-related issues into development policies and programmes.
Following the launch, government departments especially those dealing with forestry, water and agriculture, have been sensitising people around the country on the NAPA programme.
The local people have since started bracing themselves against the effects of climate change. Most smallholder farmers are now moving away from total dependence on rain-fed agriculture towards irrigation farming.
Boti, for example, is now concentrating on replanting crops in her field in this dry season.
“We never used to grow crops in the dry season but my whole community is now relying on irrigation to produce food. We will therefore be able to avoid starvation in case of more floods or drought this year,” says Boti.
Other adaptation strategies that have been adopted by smallholder farmers include crop diversification into growing drought resistant and short duration crops like legumes and producing high value crops.

“We are being encouraged to grow crops that will provide us with a lot of income such as paprika and mushrooms. We’ve also started concentrating on livestock farming and bee-keeping,” says Boti.

The smallholder farmer is also part of a village disaster management committee, which has since been formed to map up ways that the local people can help each other in coping with current and future climate change effects.

Boti says her committee has agreed to construct water reservoirs to catch rain water for irrigation in case of a drought, to manage land better by producing manure and to intensify civic education within her district on climate change and adaptation plans that the people can adopt.
Meanwhile, the adaptation strategies can easily be noticed in her area. Villagers are busy planting potatoes, paprika and mushrooms at a time that was deemed as a break from agricultural activities.
Chingolopiyo says his family has escaped the malaria outbreak. Many people in his area, including him, have now heeded government’s call to always use bed-nets to avoid being beaten by mosquitoes which carry the malaria parasite.

“We have been receiving free mosquito nets from health facilities for some time but most of us were using them as fishing nets. We have now realised that it’s much more beneficial for us to use them against the prevention of malaria,” says Chingolopiyo.

Malawi Women Push for Parliamentary Positions with the Help of the 50:50 Program

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

No political meeting happens in Malawi without song and dance. Clad in colorful political party regalia, women and girls are the traditional singers and dancers for the country’s political parties. They sing adoring songs of praise for the political leaders they support and mock those who represent political interests different from their own. The majority of Malawi’s politicians are men.

As the country’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections draw closer, the women of Malawi want to move away from being mere singers and dancers; 425 women have mobilized to contest for the country’s 193 parliamentary positions in next May’s elections.

An aspiring MP Margret Nyakondowe says she is contesting because she understands the challenges facing people, especially women and children, better than any man.

"I am a mother and I know the needs of mothers in this country. I would like to see an end to those challenges and I will advocate for them in Parliament," says Nyakondowe.

The quest for more political positions for women is being championed by 42 civil society groups under the NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO GCN) and the country’s Ministry of Women. Technical and financial support is coming from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Canadian International Development Agency, Action Aid International, Danish Church Aid, OXFAM-GB, GTZ and the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
In July, the campaigners launched a national program to increase women’s representation and participation in politics and decision-making positions – the crusade has been dubbed the 50:50 campaign. Its primary goal is to have 50 percent or more women holding parliamentary positions after the 2009 elections.

Lilian Patel, Chairperson of the Malawi Parliamentary Women Caucus and a current MP, says the women are not asking for special favors, just to be given a chance to be part of the country’s development.

"We always work extra hard as women in Parliament. We want to see women and the whole nation prosper. We have the people's interest at heart," says Patel, who has been an MP for 14 years.

The battle promises to be tough since the targets set are much higher than the number of women who currently hold decision making positions; at the moment there is only a 14 percent representation of women in Parliament, 16 percent in the executive arm of government and 12 percent in the judiciary.

“Malawi has made unsatisfactory strides in getting more women into Parliament,” worries Minister of Women and Child Development, Anna Kachikho, especially since the country is party to various international and regional instruments which call for the involvement of women in decision-making positions. Malawi has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender and Development Declaration, the Beijing Declaration, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Union Solemn Declaration of Gender Equality.

Already, hurdles against the women aspirants are emerging from the country’s major political parties – some leaders in constituencies are literally blocking women from contesting. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has set up excessive primary elections participation fees to hinder women from contesting, while the major opposition party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has declared that it will not give any special treatment to its women parliamentary candidates.

“Of course the elections are a competition, but men already have an unfair advantage over women, partly because of their well established financial capacity,” says executive director of the Association for Progressive Women (APW), Reen Kachere. According to government gender statistics, only 23 percent of women in Malawi have an equal or greater say in economic decisions at home.

“With start up financial incentives for women, the situation could be reversed to ensure sustainable women participation in politics and decision making,” says Kachere.

Under the 50:50 program, each candidate will be trained in assertiveness, advocacy, lobbying and campaigning. They will also receive $700 as start-up campaign money and media exposure.

But according to NGO GCN board chairperson Emma Kaliya, violence also deters women from participating in politics. Reports of violence and harassment always occur in Malawi, especially in the run-up to elections. Fights have already been broken up this month as different political parties hold parliamentary primary elections.

This unruly behavior by male parliamentarians discourages many women from contesting and the use of insults against women MPs is ever present in the Malawi national assembly.

The leader of opposition in Parliament, John Tembo, recently accused women in Parliament of getting cosmetic surgery. While making the remark, he pointed at the Minister of Information, Patricia Kaliati, one of the women in Parliament who is well-groomed. Some women MPs have even been called prostitutes, ugly and unmarried.

“MPs should tone down the language they use against women. This is a sad development because the shortage of women in the House is affecting discussions that affect them. For instance, issues to do with maternal deaths and property grabbing are not discussed,” says Kaliya.

But those championing the 50:50 campaign continue to encourage women’s participation in the coming elections despite these impediments. Through UNFPA, the United Nations in Malawi believes that a critical mass of women in politics tends to influence public priorities and helps to keep gender equality, women’s rights and issues of reproductive health rights high on the agenda of public policies and budgets.

Says UNFPA gender expert Veronica Njikho, “UNFPA is committed to helping the Malawi government and other civil society organizations that are championing the 50:50 campaign to ensure that they strengthen the skills of women aspirants for them to run successful campaigns.”

Njikho also says the UN would like to see political parties provided with the skills necessary to ensure that conducive political space is provided to women contestants and that the general populace is mobilized to support women candidates during the elections.

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), which facilitates elections in the country and boasts 50 percent female representation, also supports the effort. The chairperson of the electoral body, Anastasia Msosa, has since appealed to traditional, political and religious leaders to make deliberate efforts to encourage more female participation in the 2009 electoral process.

Msosa observes that the active participation of women is vital considering that females in the country make up 60 percent of the electorate. “It would be great to see women use their voting power to be in power,” says Msosa.

But it is not only women that want to see the number of women increase. A prominent male civil rights activist in the country, Unandi Banda, says it is vital to choose women for parliamentary positions as they know social and economic problems much better than most men because women and girls in Malawi suffer most in terms of securing basic resources like water and firewood.

“Women are better placed to come up with policies that could improve the people’s lives,” says Banda. “For example, the lone member of parliament for the opposition Alliance for Democracy, Loveness Gondwe, always gives constructive criticisms during parliamentary debates. Most male MPs just make unnecessary noise.”

A district commissioner in Malawi’s southern district of Chikwawa, Lowford Palani, says that every nation requires the full involvement of women to develop.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Undule Mwakasungula agrees with the sentiments that it is the women that know best the socioeconomic problems confronting the country.

“Look at the long distances women travel to the nearest health center for health care, only to be told there are no drugs. Look at the long distances they cover to fetch water,” says Mwakasungula. Most women and girls in Malawi travel an average of 5 kilometers per day to collect water, carrying a container that holds about 20 kilograms of water on their heads. The average person in Malawi travels 20 kilometers to reach the nearest health center.

Like the many of the people who support these women in their fight for parliament, I believe women make better leaders than men. The women in the Malawi Parliament and those in decision-making positions are rarely implicated in corruption cases. They're more honest and have the people's interest at heart; issues of national importance like the environment, health and education get more attention from women parliamentarians.

The Malawi government through the Ministry of Women and Child Development has since pledged its commitment to ensure that women have equal access to parliamentary seats.

UNFPA Resident Representative in Malawi, Esperance Fundira, says the program to increase women in politics is not just about numbers. Citing the critical role women parliamentarians played in getting the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill passed into law in 2006 she says, “There is overwhelming evidence from within Malawi on the difference women bring to the table when they are in key decision making positions. We must remember that by empowering a woman, the whole nation tends to benefit and we stand a better chance of achieving the Millennium Development Goals and making gender equality a reality.”

Saving Sex Workers in Malawi

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

Twenty-seven year-old Lima Wochi from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, looks dejected. She ventured into prostitution at the tender age of 12. She says she is tired of sex work and is looking for a way out of it.

Prostitution is deemed unacceptable in Malawi but the sex trade continues to thrive. Large numbers of women, especially young ones, are seen loitering around street corners, near hotels, bars and other entertainment places.

Wochi is one of these women. She immediately catches one’s attention as she prowls around a popular bar in Chigwirizano, one of the capital city’s popular entertainment joints. The woman has all sorts of scars on her face and thighs – many of her customers have inflicted physical and emotional abuse on her over the years.
“The worst case of abuse I encountered was two years ago when three men gang-raped me and beat me up. I couldn’t work for three months as I was seriously injured,” Wochi recalls pensively.

Wochi says she went back to the sex trade because she knew no other way of earning a living. But she says she is now too worn-out to go on.

“I don’t want to be a prostitute anymore. I am fed up with everything that comes with it, but my main problem is that I never went to school and I can never get good employment,” she worries.

Another of Wochi’s major concerns is the risk of contracting HIV. She has not been brave enough to go for an HIV test yet. The 2006 Malawi Behavior Surveillance Survey indicates that up to 70 percent of sex workers are HIV positive – this is the highest rate being faced by one group of people in the country – the national prevalence rate for Malawi is 14 percent. AIDS is Malawi’s second leading cause of death after malaria.

Wochi says she was forced into prostitution by abject poverty. “I found sex work lucrative and I thought it was a very easy way of making money.” She left her rural village in southern Malawi and moved to the country’s capital, Lilongwe. She immediately started roaming around the city’s drinking places and hotels plying the sex trade.

Now, Wochi is looking for a substantial sum of money that will set her off in a “more respectable business.” She is paid US$3 for providing sex without using a condom and US$1 for sex with a condom. “I sleep with five men on a good night but sometimes I go without getting any customers,” she says.

The United Nations Population Fund’s HIV Prevention Officer Humphreys Shumba says that sex work in Malawi is mainly driven by poverty. The country remains one of the most impoverished in the world and is ranked among the 14 poorest nations by the 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on broader indicators of their quality of life including life expectancy, enrollment in school, freedom from disease and other measures.

According to 2008 research findings by the Community Health Department at the University of Malawi, up to 83 percent of prostitutes in Malawi are known to depend solely on sex work for their livelihoods and 95 percent of them have children. Sixty nine percent of the women who are involved in the sex trade are divorced.

Shumba says unprotected sex, which is often practiced by sex workers, is among the key drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi. “Sex work in Malawi is characterized by, among other factors, lower age of entry into the trade where girls as young as 12 years are known to be sex workers,” he says. Since 2005, government has since been deploying child protection officers to find and rehabilitate child prostitutes so they can return to their communities.

Shumba explains that lack of negotiation skills and assertiveness in ensuring safer sex through condom use also aggravates the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses.

UNFPA has since funded the Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) to work on reducing the transmission of HIV among the prostitutes by empowering them to practice safer sex, and by increasing the sex workers’ access to reproductive health, voluntary counseling and testing.

So far, the law in Malawi is silent on prostitution. However, the police usually carry out night raids and arrest anyone found loitering in entertainment and public places – most of those arrested are prostitutes. The police charge them with minor infractions: either being found Idle and Disorderly, or Rogue and Vagabond - crimes that do not exact harsh punishment.

Grace Thupi, a sex worker, says she was once arrested during a night raid and was taken to court. “I was charged with Rogue and Vagabond and the court imposed a suspended sentence of two weeks in jail,” she says.

To fill in the gaps, FPAM is engaging the sex workers by providing them with information, skills for negotiating safer sex (condom use) and alternative livelihood options, says Bessie Nkhwazi, the NGO’s district manager for Lilongwe.

FPAM, the government, NGOs and other service providers in Malawi realize that they cannot stop prostitution overnight, so their focus is largely on HIV prevention. And though FPAM and UNFPA create their workplans with the government, it’s mainly for appearances so they can say the government is somehow involved. Some of the money that FPAM receives comes from the National AIDS Commission, which is a government body, but the government is mainly helping to combat child prostitution through the deployment of child protection officers. The implementation of actual programs, especially those for older prostitutes, are really falling on the NGOs.

“We are addressing the economic and social obstacles faced by those indulging in the sex work trade. The sex workers are undergoing training in business management and they are also being equipped with vocational skills such as tailoring, running hair salons, restaurants and mushroom growing,” says Nkhwazi.

Jane Banda, 25, is one sex worker who has been trained in tailoring. She is waiting for a loan to be provided by UNFPA through FPAM that will set her up with her new business.

“I have been abused so much in this trade. Some man picked me up from the drinking joint and dumped me in a grave yard in the middle of the night. I have never been as scared as I was on that night. I can’t live like that anymore,” declares Banda.

Fistula Turns Women Into Outcasts

Pilirani Semu-Banda interviews LAUSI ADAMU, fistula patient

Women suffering from obstetric fistula in Malawi received free medical care to reverse their condition during the country’s Fistula Week.

Between Oct. 12 and 18, the Malawian government, with technical and financial assistance from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), treated more than 130 destitute women who have no or little access to health care services.

Lausi Adamu, from Makanjira in Malawi’s lake district of Mangochi, who does not know her exact age, has suffered from fistula for the last 25 years. Her affliction came to an end last week, when she received an operation free of charge to stop her ailment.

Adamu told reporter Pilirani Semu-Banda about her life with the disease as she recuperated in hospital after the operation.

How did you develop fistula?

Lausi Adamu: It was 25 years ago, when I was in labour for three days while giving birth to my first and only child at home.

I received no medical care throughout pregnancy, and it was only my mother who was with me during delivery. There was no midwife or doctor available. It was a very long and painful labour and the baby was stillborn when he eventually came out.

I have been unable to control the leakage of both urine and faeces from my body ever since and I haven’t had the courage to have another child.

Why did you not receive medical care during pregnancy and delivery?

LA: It takes four hours to walk from my village to the nearest hospital, and no vehicle goes into my area because the road is in a very bad condition. Most births therefore happen at home, and women rely on their mothers, their mother-in-laws or traditional birth attendants to help them during labour.

The culture in my area also demands that the first baby has to be delivered at home for elders to ensure that the husband is indeed responsible for the pregnancy. There is a belief that most women have more than one relationship after they just got married -– so the women who help at birth ask the woman in labour to mention the (name of the) real father of the baby. The belief is that if any complications develop during the process of giving birth the woman has been unfaithful.

What did you know about fistula before you developed the condition?

LA: I thought I was bewitched, but everyone else in my community thought I had been unfaithful to my husband. It was a very strange affliction. My mother took me to five different traditional healers who told me that the condition was incurable and that I should accept to live with it for the rest of my life.

However, there have been many such cases in my area over the years, and most of the women have been treated by community members the same way as me (with contempt).

Government and UNFPA staff have in the past year been coming to my area, and they have been carrying out community meetings where they are telling us that the condition is medical and that it is repairable.

I decided to come to the hospital to see if indeed I can be helped after one of the women from my community, who had a similar condition, came back cured after visiting the hospital.

How has fistula affected your life?

LA: It has been a terrible nightmare. My husband left me two months after I developed fistula and my mother died soon thereafter. All of my relatives, including my own brothers and sisters, deserted me.

I have been living a very lonesome life since no one wanted to be close to me because of the appalling smell that emanated from my body at all times. I could never attend any social gatherings within my community, not even funerals of my own relatives.

I have been selling mats, which I weave, to make a living, but I never got close to my customers even then. I leave the mats by the roadside and speak to them from a distance about the price.

Do you still believe fistula is caused by witchcraft?

LA: Not any more. After listening to the community meetings being carried out by UNFPA and government and after my visit to the hospital, I believe that fistula occurs due to prolonged and hindered labour during which the baby's head puts pressure on the bladder and rectum, thereby causing holes. This causes the woman to leak urine or faeces or both uncontrollably.

Looking back 25 years, I do agree that this is what really happened.

Are many members of your community now changing their perceptions about fistula due to the meetings?
LA: It is very difficult to change people’s perceptions because most of us have not been to school. Our culture is strong and it’s not easy to sway people away from what they have believed in for a long time.

Of course, there are quite a number of us that have now come to accept how fistula occurs, but it will take a lot of sensitisation before most people start to believe that fistula is indeed a medical condition.

Now that women with fistula are able to access medical treatment, what other challenges are they facing?

LA: The medical personnel carrying out the repairs are men and because my community is very traditional and conservative, most women are not willing to be treated by men, especially since the condition has to do with private parts.

Given a choice, I would have opted to be operated on by a woman. However, we are being told that it is only men that are qualified to carry out fistula repairs, so we don’t have a choice.

Will you play a role in educating people in your community about fistula?

LA: I have had fistula for a very long time and I have experienced unimaginable torture from this condition -– I know the terrible feelings that women with fistula have to live with.

When I go back home, I will encourage women with fistula to go and seek medical help. I will also be advocating for hospital deliveries and try to change people’s thinking. The best way to avoid fistula is to encourage pregnant women to go for antenatal care and to have their babies delivered in hospital.

Do you think that organisations working to combat fistula are doing enough?

LA: They’re trying their best. But apart from aid organisations we need government to help us in the reduction of poverty as well because I now understand that fistula happens mostly among poor people.

Communities like where I come from do not have easy access to proper health care and good roads because they are mostly poor. We also need education so that we can understand issues and to get rid of harmful traditional beliefs.

The Bold and the Beautiful

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
The reigning Miss Malawi, Peth Msiska, has hit the campaign trail, not seeking another crown but to be voted into Parliament in her country’s general elections in May 2009.

Msiska, 24, says this is the right time to join the majority Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and run for office because she is "young, focused and determined to serve others as I have always done over the past two years in my capacity as Miss Malawi."

Trading high heels for flat shoes, the beauty queen with a degree in accountancy has swapped fashion and charity events in Blantyre for rallies along dusty roads in her home area of Chileka, in the south of the country.

"I decided to join politics to make a difference in the lives of people, especially those in the rural areas," Msiska told IPS.

Hers is no easy task. Up to 70 percent of Malawi’s population of 14 million is rural, more than half live in poverty and 22 per cent live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations.

For the people of Chileka, Msiska wants to bring boreholes and taps closer. She knows from her childhood that local women and girls walk up to 10 kilometres to fetch clean water.

Second in her to-do list is bringing electricity. Ironically, Chileka is close to a hydro-electrical power station on the Shire River, Malawi’s longest watercourse, but people here use paraffin lamps and candles.

"Electricity is generated right on their door-steps but they don’t have access to it," she fires. "And it’s unacceptable to see women travelling long distances in search of clean water."

Orphanages and schools are another priority. As Miss Malawi, Msiska fundraised for charities dealing with orphans and the elderly. There are one million orphans in Malawi, according to United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).

Sharon Gonsalves-Chalira, a 25-year-old secondary school teacher from Chileka, is a fan.

"She is an inspiration not only to young women like me but to the whole community here," she told IPS. "Peth will win the elections and I am sure she will deliver all that she’s promising in her campaign speeches."

Msiska is a powerful motivational speaker, urging young women to see themselves just as capable as men. Just like she does: "I am aware that some people might not take me seriously because I am young but politics it is not about age. I am a very determined woman, principled, confident and qualified to be a member of parliament."

Msiska, who is single, has the backing of her family, and derives strength from praying at the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

Walk the talk

Malawian women do not often venture into politics because of harassment, intimidation and cultural perceptions that bind them to domesticity, says Emma Kaliya, of the Gender Coordination Network (GCN).

Malawi scores below the sub-Saharan Africa average of female representation in government. Women account for 14 percent in Parliament, 16 percent in the executive arm of government, and 12 per cent in the judiciary.

In the world ranking of women legislators by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Malawi scored 87 among some 140 countries.

Kaliya says the small number of women in parliament hampers discussions on issues such as maternal deaths and property grabbing from widows.

"We need more women in parliament so that women issues are addressed effectively," said Kaliya.

There is now new hope for improvement. Msiska, like all 425 women parliamentary candidates, has the backing of the 50/50 Campaign, a national effort of government and 42 civil society groups to boost women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions.

The Campaign wants at least half of the 193 parliamentary seats to go to women. It is inspired by the Southern African Development Community target agreed in August by member states, including Malawi, to have a 50 percent representation of women in government by 2015.

To get there, the Campaign is putting its money where its mouth is. All women candidates will be trained in advocacy, lobbying and campaigning, and get $700 as a campaign start-up in their constituencies.

Msiska would not be Malawi’s youngest Member of Parliament. Angela Zachepa was voted into office in 2004 when she was just 22 years old. But Misiska might just be the most glamorous.

Miss Malawi is further inspired by the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican party in the United States, Governor Sarah Palin, who won the third place in the 1984 Miss Alaska pageant.

Unlike Palin, who has received a lot of negative coverage in the American press, Msiska has been portrayed positively in the Malawi media.

"It’s high time that people realised that beauty queens can make great leaders," Msiska told IPS.


The ABC of Being a Successful Business Woman

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

Through hard work and resilience, Malawian entrepreneur Mary Phombeya has developed her once small and struggling business outfit into a fully fledged company. She imports fashionable clothes – for women, children and men – from Dubai, Thailand and Hong Kong which she sells locally.

‘‘Although I have only been in this business for two years now, I feel like I have come a very long way. I have achieved so much despite facing some very tough challenges,’’ 40-year-old Phombeya tells IPS.

Initiated in April 2006 with a measly 3,000 dollars, the clothing business has given her a five-bedroom house in one of the affluent areas in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. She is also able to send her two children and three other relatives to the country’s distinguished schools from the profits she makes.

‘‘I was so reliant on my husband before I started my business. But I am now very independent as I have a daily cash flow from the sales,’’ Phombeya says proudly. She makes an average profit of 5,000 dollars per month and provides employment to two women.

The business is different from when she kick-started it two years ago. She did not even have a business plan. ‘‘I had no real vision at all when I started. I just decided to accompany somebody to Hong Kong who had been selling clothes to me. I brought back whatever I could lay my hands on but most of the clothes did not sell because I had only bought what I’d liked,’’ she explains.

Phombeya learnt her lesson from that incident and decided to take her trade to greater heights. She went around to offices, asking potentials clients what their desired piece of clothing would be.

‘‘I only got things right when I decided to acquaint myself with the needs of my customers. I always make sure that I know exactly what I will sell to what type of buyer,’’ says Phombeya, as she bustles around her boutique, hanging up pieces of clothing from the consignment she has just brought back from Thailand.

It is her dedication to her customers that has supported Phombeya’s business, Flora Kabati, one of her most reliable clients, tells IPS.

‘‘She has the interest of her customers at heart. She knows what my choices of clothing are and she does not go wrong. She has supplied me with office wear, casual wear and even clothes for special events like a wedding or a party,’’ enthused Kabati.

Phombeya makes the most of every chance to network with fellow traders. She is always in the company of colleagues when she travels abroad to procure clothing.

‘‘You want to feel safe when you are walking around a strange city. We walk long distances scouting for affordable goods. Sometimes we cover a distance of up to 20 kilometres,’’ says Phombeya.

It only takes two days to gather enough merchandise for sale but that she spends four days flying to and from Malawi. ‘‘It is very tiring and challenging. One needs a lot of patience and determination to do this.’’

There are a number of sacrifices that Phombeya has to make in her quest for an income. She throws the need for privacy to the wind during her travels as she usually shares a hotel room with four other traders. This helps them save money.

She also has to be tough and stop herself from being enticed to buy goods that she might want for herself and her family while shopping for her customers.

‘‘This business demands a lot of discipline and self-control. Sometimes I get really fascinated by all sorts of good things but I ensure that I don’t get lured into buying those things,’’ says the merchant. Once she went to Dubai and ended up shopping for her own house, thus losing business opportunities.

A major challenge facing Phombeya’s trade is the amount of duty she has to pay on importing merchandise into the country. ‘‘The taxes are so high. Sometimes the amount of money I pay in taxes on an item of clothing is higher than the amount of money I paid for the garment,’’ worries Phombeya.

She has to sell such clothing at a higher-than-usual price if she is to realise profits.

The business woman also has to contend with high transportation costs when flying the goods into the country. She pays seven dollars for every kilogramme of luggage.

Most of Phombeya’s customers buy the clothes on credit. They pay her in instalments. This also poses a challenge because not all her customers honour their debts. ‘‘Some people get the clothes and change their telephone numbers while others move houses. It’s very difficult to trace such people and I lose out.’’

Others get aggressive when she reminds them to pay and hurl insults at her.

Phombeya, however, is not being slowed down by the challenges she encounters. She plans to spread out into more business ventures in the coming year and is eyeing the distribution industry.

‘‘I already have plans in place to be a distributor of soft drinks and mobile phone credit. I am sure I will make it and I will be a much bigger trader than now,’’ Phombeya confidently adds.

She holds a Master’s of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics which, she says, has also helped her in being resourceful. (END/2008)

Help for Women with Obstetric Fistula

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

A group of 138 unhappy and mostly destitute women from Malawi’s lake district of Mangochi have something to look forward to this week: They will have a chance to restore their dignity and pride by accessing a medical service usually not available to them.

Some of the women have been unable to control the flow of urine and faeces from their bodies for many years due to a medical condition known as obstetric fistula. Others are recent victims of this demeaning condition.

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reproductive health officer, Dorothy Lazaro, obstetric fistula occurs during the process of giving birth and is caused by extended pressure of the child’s head against the soft tissue in the mother’s pelvis.

The tissue eventually dies from the lack of blood supply, and a hole develops between either the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina. As a result, women lose control of the flow of urine and sometimes faeces.

UNFPA and Malawi’s Ministry of Health have jointly organised a "Fistula Week" where women with this condition will undergo operations and receive free medical services to reverse the condition.

Apart from medical complications, women suffering from obstetric fistula have to face numerous social obstacles. They are outcasts in their communities because their husbands abandon them when they fall ill. In addition, community members do not want to get close to them because of the smell that emanates from their bodies due to the continuous flow of excreta.

Malawi has no official statistics on how many women are afflicted with fistula but government, with UNFPA’s assistance, is currently carrying out a study to determine the scale of the problem.

Lazaro says that there is such a large number of fistula patients in Mangochi because early marriages abound in the district, which result in young women giving birth before their bodies are ready to endure the strains of pregnancy and birth.

She explains that young women often go through a prolonged labour process that causes the soft tissues between the pelvis to die, which then creates holes between the bladder and/or the rectum and the vagina. "We have come across girls as young as 13 giving birth, and this age group usually risks developing fistula," says Lazaro.

She also says that most women in Mangochi give birth at home with no medical care or follow up examinations.

The head of the national health ministry’s Reproductive Health Unit (RHU), Dr. Chisale Mhango, says Malawi lacks sufficient infrastructure for maternal care -- another contributing factor to fistula. The lack of health services is also responsible for the country’s high maternal mortality rate -– with 807 deaths per 100,000 live births -– the second-highest on the continent after war-torn Sierra Leone.

"It’s very difficult for us to cope with maternity cases because of the lack of medical personnel that the country continues to face," says Mhango.

The country’s efforts to attain Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number five, which aims to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters by 2015, are being severely hampered by these shortcomings.

There is only one doctor and four clinical officers in the whole of Malawi who are qualified to carry out fistula repairs, according to Lazaro. More than 100 registered nurses are reported to be leaving the country each year for the developed world in search of higher-paying jobs. Malawi’s Ministry of Health statistics indicate that one doctor takes care of up to 64,000 patients.

But this week, UNFPA has brought into the country two surgical specialists from Holland and Kenya to provide support to the existing local medical personnel in treating the women during fistula week.

"The specialists will also provide a refresher course on fistula repair to our local medical personnel," says Lazaro. She, however, worries that the efforts of fistula week might be hampered by a lack of bed space available in the health care facilities in Mangochi to treat the 138 women.

"The women have to be monitored for two weeks after the operation and it may not be feasible for the health facilities to have so many women hospitalised for such a long time," says Lazaro.

As a long-term plan developed locally to prevent fistula, UNFPA in Malawi is recommending fistula prevention programmes to be linked with education systems to ensure that girls remain in school for a longer time. The UN agency also recommends that youth-friendly health services be made widely available to prevent early pregnancies.

Malawi is not the only country faced with high maternal mortality rates. Globally, 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world and half of these take place in Africa, according to a joint statement released by UNFPA, World Bank, UNICEF and World Health Organisation in late September.

The agencies say the MDG goal on maternal mortality is showing the least progress compared to the other seven MDG goals, which aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empowerment of women, reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development.

"Every minute a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth in the world," says the statement.

The agencies pledged to enhance support to countries with the highest maternal mortality during the next five years and will work with governments and civil society to strengthen national capacity by conducting needs assessments and ensuring that health plans are MDG-driven.

The UN agencies have also promised to address the urgent need for skilled health workers, particularly midwives, reduce financial barriers to access health facilities, especially for the poorest, tackle the root causes of maternal mortality and morbidity which include gender inequality low access to education, especially for girls, child marriage and adolescent pregnancy.

Malawi is hoping to be one of the countries to benefit from this new pledge to scale up efforts to eliminate fistula and maternal deaths, says Lazaro.


Irrigation Promises to Increase Food Security

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
Wyson Chandanga, a small-holder Malawian farmer from the northern district of Mzimba, does not care if the country receives enough rain this year. He is also not concerned on whether the rains come on time or not.

Chandanga’s attitude is at first surprising, since Malawi is an agricultural economy which greatly depends on rain-fed farming. The country derives up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange revenue from agricultural production and 85 percent of the country’s population depend on the same sector for their livelihood.

However, Chandanga says adverse weather, including erratic rains, experienced in the country in recent years, has persuaded him to find ways to reduce his dependence on rainfall.

Malawi has recently experienced three major episodes of drought; one in 1991, another in 2000 and the most recent happened in 2005. The country has also faced major flooding in some parts of the country -- last year, half of Malawi’s 28 districts were hit by heavy flooding and most crops were swept away.

Looking dirty and tired but content after finishing a day’s work cultivating his plot of land, Chandanga declares that he will be a more successful farmer now that he no longer cares for the rains.

"I have now ventured into irrigation farming and I grow maize twice a year even in the dry season. I could only produce the staple food once in a year when I practiced rain-fed agriculture and the yield was not enough for my family," says the farmer.

Chandanga is one of the 29,000 farmers being assisted by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to intensify farm production by developing small-scale irrigation systems and water harvesting schemes in Malawi’s northern region.

The farmers are being trained to improve food security, diversify sources of household income, prevent waterborne diseases in water points and pit latrines, improve their dietary intake and conserve natural resources, according to FAO communications officer Muwuso Chawinga.

"Up to 90 percent of Malawi’s agriculture is rain-fed but we need to diversify into more irrigation farming practices if we have to attain food security for the country," says Chawinga.

Seven out of 10 households in Malawi typically run out of food before the harvesting season, mainly because of drought and floods, according to Chawinga. "It is therefore important that the country should now be maximising on all the seasons and grow their crops even in the dry season and avoid the drought or flooding which may destroy their crops," says Chawinga.

The irrigation programme, which only started in January this year, is already showing signs of having promoted crop diversification in a country that is highly reliant on maize as a staple food. Chandanga, for example, is now also cultivating potatoes, beans and rice to supplement the maize that he has been growing.

Masuzgo Jere, who is also cultivating on a small piece of irrigated land, says she has already harvested enough maize this year to feed her family of five; most farmers are yet to even plant a first crop as they await the rains. She expects to bring in two more crops before April next year, which is when the country harvests maize from the rain-fed agricultural system.

"I not only manage to feed my family, I also sell the surplus food I grow. My family is now regarded as well-off by members of my community," says Jere.

The farmers involved in the irrigation project are provided with treadle pumps and water pipes which they use to pump water through canals from dams, rivers and streams closest to them.

Apart from irrigation, the farmers are being taught skills in water management, development of agro-business, promotion of afforestation and natural resource conservation.

"Our children are not left behind in this since we are also developing garden-based learning centres in primary schools. This is forming part of the agriculture lessons and it will ensure sustainability of the project since the kids will grow with the knowledge on the importance of irrigation farming," says Jere.

The irrigation programme was kick-started following a Poverty Rural Assessment (PRA) exercise which FAO carried out in May 2007. The assessment highlighted low crop yield and low income levels among rural households – the findings were mostly attributed to lack of irrigation opportunities, erratic rainfall and drought.

Malawi is only irrigating 72,000 of 400,000 hectares of irrigable land, according to the government. However the country’s president Bingu wa Mutharika, who is also Minister of Agriculture, told reporters at an August press conference that government is creating a "green belt" along Lake Malawi, which will entail the creation of irrigation schemes along the lake. Lake Malawi is a fresh water lake -- the ninth largest lake in the world, it extends the length of the country.

Small-holder farmers will be assisted by government to establish irrigation schemes along the lake. In Malawi’s 2008/2009 national budget, the allocation to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development has been increased by 50 percent to $55 million.

"The funds will be used in the ministry’s development programme, considered to be crucial for the attainment of food security. This year, (the programme) is expected to construct some 16 earth dams in addition to 20 that have been constructed so far," said the country’s Minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe when he presented the budget statement.

The Ministry of Agriculture has since indicated that the country is expected to produce up to 300,000 tonnes of maize from irrigation by November. The country usually receives its first rains between November and December.


Malawi Still Hopeful That Investment Will Come

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Aug 12 (IPS) - Malawi is on the prowl to extend its trade connections to different corners of the world, west and east. The small southern African country is hoping foreign investment will help it to become a producer and exporter rather than a consumer and importer economy, as is presently the case.

The Commonwealth Business Council (CBC), which seeks to link budding markets in the developing world with the international private sector, has become Malawi’s latest ally in its quest to find much-vaunted, but ever-elusive, investment by foreign companies.

‘‘The Malawi economy is as good as any economy you would want to invest in. We have achieved a lot. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) cannot believe what we have achieved in just four years. We have managed to stabilise the economy,’’ Malawi’s finance minister, Goodall Gondwe, told the CBC.

The CBC and the Malawi government agreed on July 18 that the council will assist in wooing investors for the country’s industries of mining, tourism, information technology, telecommunications, agriculture and agro-processing, transportation, energy and banking.

The CBC was founded by the Commonwealth’s heads of state at a meeting in 1997 in order to use the network connecting Britain and its former colonies to spur investment and trade.

The new deal comes on the heels of another trade venture which the small southern African country has cultivated with the emerging trade giant, China. Just in May this year Malawi signed a memorandum of understanding with the Asian state, aimed at promoting bilateral trade relations between the two countries.

Another three trade missions are expected this year -- from Japan, the United States and India.

A total of 25 major project proposals were presented to the CBC by Malawian business people, with bankable projects worth 10 million dollars and above.

The council will facilitate investment of 20 million dollars by a team of financiers from the developed world for an upmarket international conference facility.

This is aimed at attracting international conferences to the country, head of the CBC team that visited Malawi, Sanmit Ahuja, told government and private sector leaders who met his delegation.

‘‘There is a lack of conference facilities in the country. We believe that if we invest in a conference centre, Malawi will be able to host international conferences and in turn attract more tourists into the country,’’ said Ahuja.

The CBC and the Malawi government, through the ministry of trade, have since agreed on an action plan which will ensure that the country sustains momentum based on its economic fundamentals.

Through a communiqué signed by Malawi and CBC, the country is expected to promote public-private partnerships for the provision of economic infrastructure and to increase productivity in the agricultural sector to ensure food security.

It is also expected to build on existing economic advantages, such as tourism and information communication and technology, as a way of broadening its economic base.

The CBC, on its part, promised to facilitate the availability of geological surveys to develop and exploit Malawi’s mineral resources and attract investors to transportation, energy and health.

The council also pledged to commit itself to creating a follow-up mechanism on the investment pledges that were made during the visit.

Gondwe told the CBC that Malawi is courting investors to help build the country’s private sector which, he said, is the engine of economic growth.

Gondwe also assured the CBC delegation that the country’s markets are up to standard and that government will continue to step up the trade environment and improve security on investments.

He explained to the CBC team that Malawi’s interest rates are down from around 35 percent in 2004 to about 15 percent now and that the inflation rate has dropped from 17.5 percent to 7.9 percent during the same period.

‘‘Government’s target is to cut the inflation rate to about 6.5 percent by the end of the year, to make the economy even more stable,’’ Gondwe promised CBC.

The industry and trade minister, Henry Mussa, has since indicated that Malawi is arranging more trade missions this year. He said the country is now targeting the United States, India and Japan.

‘‘We expect to start seeing the real fruits of improved trade and investment in three or four years to come. In three to four years’ time, real investment will take place in the country,’’ Mussa argued.

CBC works to provide leadership for the improvement of international trade and investment flows, to create new business opportunities and to promote good governance and corporate social responsibility. It seeks to reduce the digital divide and to integrate developing countries into the global market.

The visit by CBC to Malawi followed a Malawi Investment Forum which was held in London in April this year. The forum is reported to have generated a lot of interest in investing in Malawi. (END/2008)