Women’s Rights in Malawi
Gender inequality is one of the most significant challenges Malawi faces today. The country, located in Southeastern Africa with a population of more than 20 million, lags in terms of the advancement of women’s rights. Many parties are conducting vital work to improve women’s rights in Malawi, including the Government of Malawi, the U.N. and the EU. However, “low and fragmented allocation of resources” on the part of the government often means that initiatives struggle to reach the most vulnerable and marginalized Malawian women.

Circumstances Impacting Girls and Women in Malawi

According to Girls Not Brides, Malawi has the 12th highest child marriage rate in the world. In 2020, this equaled 46% of girls married before turning 18. According to a 2017-2020 gender fact sheet by USAID,  the first sexual encounters of two in five Malawian girls are unwanted.

Additionally, two in three girls (ages 15-19) in Malawi do not complete primary education, falling into a vicious cycle of early marriage, pregnancy and a lack of formal education. While women conduct a significant proportion of the nation’s agricultural labor, they very rarely own the land on which they work.

As a result, women face significant economic disadvantages in comparison to their male counterparts. Despite agricultural production remaining the cornerstone of Malawi’s economy and women playing a large role in the cultivation of crops, which involves hard manual labor, women receive little pay when compared with male farm owners in their communities.

Women’s Education and Employment

Ensuring equitable and quality education remains one of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), however, many girls in Malawi lack this human right. High rates of child marriage and early motherhood mean that young women are expected to fulfill adult roles and step out of education. One in two Malawian girls is married by 18 compared to one in 20 boys who are, therefore, far more likely to attend secondary education and college.

Partly due to differences in educational attainment, the gender pay gap in Malawi remains pronounced with the Government of Malawi citing increased economic equality as one of the key steps to achieving equal status for women in Malawi. Equal pay remains a core challenge for women’s rights in Malawi and globally.

Malawi remains a deeply patriarchal society with the vast majority of domestic labor falling on the shoulders of women. While increasing the number of equally-paid women in the workforce may seem like a solution to the problem of gender equality, women still face the dual burden of both unpaid household work and paid employment.

Gender-Based Violence and Reproductive Health in Malawi

Gender-based violence in Malawi remains commonplace and there is little education for young women on issues of reproductive health. Furthermore, one in three girls are mothers by the age of 18, sometimes as a result of unwanted intercourse.

HIV/AIDS is common in Malawi, and despite the disease being treatable by modern medicine, many lack access to such medication. Young Malawian women between 15 and 19 have an HIV prevalence rate triple the rate of their male counterparts. Between the ages of 20 and 24, this rate increases sixfold.

Period poverty also remains a significant women’s rights issue in Malawi as the stigma surrounding menstruation continues and disadvantaged females lack access to essential menstrual products.

Ukani Malawi

While many Malawian women continue to be the victims of gender inequality, many grassroots movements seek to change the path for young Malawian women and offer them more autonomy over their futures.

Ukani Malawi is an initiative with more than 200 volunteers, which Malawian women set up themselves. The group seeks to improve the overall development of women through education and by supporting girls to stay in school for longer while encouraging other women to act as female leaders for young women and girls.

Ukani reaches these goals through a number of initiatives, such as the Seed Grants Initiative, which “provides young women with start-up capital and entrepreneurship training,” according to the Ukani Malawi website. In addition, the Breaking Red Project aims to keep girls in school once they start menstruating by teaching them about menstrual hygiene management. As part of this project, women are shown how to sew reusable pads, which they can create and distribute in their community, providing an additional entrepreneurship opportunity.

The group also runs a young mothers project, which “aims to integrate teenage mothers back into the school system through financial support and mentorship,” hoping to help more young women complete their education.

A Brighter Future for Malawian Women and Girls

Local initiatives like those of Ukani Malawi bring hope for a better future for women and girls in Malawi. The Spotlight Initiative, established in 2019,  is a multi-year collaboration between the Malawi Government, U.N., the EU and civil society. The initiative allocated an initial €20 million of funding to create targeted initiatives in certain districts in Malawi where instances of gender-based violence are particularly high, showing support from the international community. The initiative, which is funding numerous projects globally, chose Malawi as one of the 13 nations to cover due to concerning levels of gender-based violence.

These initiatives aim to uphold women’s rights in Malawi by addressing the issues that disproportionately impact females in the country.

– Florence Jones
Photo: Flickr