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”.