WMC Women Under Siege

Single mothers in Malawi struggle to feed families as famine spreads

Zomba, Malawi—Mary Elias, of Laje village in Malawi’s southern Zomba district, speaks in metaphors. “We are carrying both water cans,” she says of the situation for single mothers in drought-ridden Malawi—meaning that women with children but without partners are solely responsible for feeding, clothing, and educating their progeny. Already a Sisyphean task in a country the United Nations Development Program regularly ranks in the top 20 poorest on earth, this has become nearly impossible in the past few years. Extreme weather (drought and floods) has made subsistence farming, which upholds 85 percent of Malawi’s people, completely insupportable.

“We are always afraid, we don’t know what is coming tomorrow,” said Nastazia Maxwell, who has two children, ages 15 and 18, of her life in Chikwawa, the district south of Zomba.

Maxwell has two children, and her husband is dead. She farms maize and cotton, but the harvest yielded almost nothing this year. Maxwell has taken to laboring on more fruitful farms whenever the opportunity presents. In an interview on a searing mid-September afternoon, Maxwell said she had eaten nothing that day, and had only had just a bit of porridge the day before. “Porridge” in withering Malawi consists of ground cornhusks with a bit of water. Her stomach always feels empty, and when she has the chance to work, she has no energy to do it, she said.

While the current famines in Syria and Yemen are well known, the hunger that is not just in Malawi but across southern Africa is considered equally as urgent by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), which ranks the region alongside the war-torn Middle Eastern countries. The numbers vary, but it’s likely that more than 30 million people across southern Africa are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and food aid, the South African Development Community told The Guardian in July. In Malawi, WFP says about 6.5 million of a population of 16 million are on the brink of starvation—and among those millions, single mothers are one of the most vulnerable groups.

In the best of times, it’s tough to be a woman in Malawi. Of 187 countries, it ranks 173 on the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)’s ranking of gender inequality. Female-headed households earn 60 percent of the annual income of male-headed households and represent the majority of poorest households in the country, according to Clara Mah Anyangwe, the UN Women representative in Malawi.

People who don’t know single mothers will draw quick assumptions: “In Malawi, for you to have a child, you have to get married first,” said Edfas Mkandawire, a program officer with UN Women. “So if you are unmarried and you have a child, people will think you had the baby out of wedlock.” If a woman is raped, the general consensus is usually that she was wearing something provocative and asking for trouble. Single mothers fare little better even if they were once married and their husband died. In that case, her husband’s family will likely blame her for his demise and try to take her most productive farming land.

Challenges for single mothers are compounded because of the role they play as primary caregivers in the household and community. As Anyangwe explained, “Women in Malawi carry a trifold burden of caregiving; that of reproductive work, productive work, and the role of nurturing for infirm or elderly family and community members.”  She offered the example of a trip to an outlet of a subsidized maize seller called ADMARC (Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation). Women will spend two days waiting in line for the grain and, unless they can leave their children in the care of others, single mothers must bring them. Once they’re in line, vendors take advantage of the most overwhelmed and hungry women (the single mothers), and will manipulate them with fixed prices—sometimes in exchange for sex.

Cases of sex for food have been noted by the media not just in Malawi, but across southern Africa, where single mothers may be forced to enter into unions or extramarital affairs that leave them with a heightened risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or exposure to violence, experts say.

“We’re working hard to figure out how we can feed our kids,” said Elias. But this most basic of goals is nearly impossible to for single mothers in Malawi, where the social deck is stacked against them. Anyangwe explained that though women make up 70 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce a commensurate amount of food, they have less access to means of production like land, credit, new information, and labor.

Culturally and traditionally in Malawi, women cannot own land. And without land, women are unlikely to get help from a credit officer who works directly with farmers. Even if a woman were to overcome such obstacles, she’d have to be well-read in order to understand the documents she is expected to complete. Only about half of women in Malawi above age 15 can read, according Mkandawire.

There are circumstances, however, that are more forgiving than others for single women when it comes to building wealth. Village structures are more likely to be of help than large institutions. In some instances, village savings-and-loan cooperatives have been helpful to single mothers. These informal groups will come together to save and lend one another money.

Aid organizations like VisionFund, the emergency microfinance unit of U.S.-based religious charity World Vision, are taking this local model and formally bringing it to Malawian communities, providing the groups cash to disperse as they see fit. Elias of Laje village is a recipient of such a loan, and is deeply dedicated to repaying it as soon as possible. She wants to prove herself and, hopefully, receive more of an investment. Vision Fund spokeswoman Sophie Hoult said the organization has 17,000 female clients in Malawi, and that 100 percent of them reported that the loan from VisionFund has improved the welfare of their children.

“Evidence tells us that providing women and mothers with financial services improves both their lives and the lives of their children.” Hoult said. “For example, the daughters of women who received microloans remain in school for 1.5 years longer. This positive effect multiplies with the next generation: Formal studies show that for every year a girl stays in school, her income will increase by at least 10 percent, and likelihood that her children will die in infancy reduces by up to 10 percent.”

The average size of a loan to clients outside of the recovery lending project is $112, and the fact that women have taken this small sum and run with it speaks to both their need as well as their ingenuity.

Elias and other mothers going it alone are most concerned for their children’s education and their future. Like parents everywhere, they want their kids to have more, and better than they have. “We really want our children to go to school so we can break the cycle [of poverty],” said single mother Grace Machoka. Machoka thinks her village would benefit from a nursery school, so that her small children could be active and learning during the day and give her some more time do the work of what would usually be two people’s.

The government of Malawi has publicly committed to empowering women and there are dozens of aid organizations that target single mothers and female-headed households. But Anyangwe says the heart of the problem is society’s perception of single mothers, and that without a drastic change in perspective, efforts to improve lives will remain superficial. “Until single mothers enjoy the same rights and respect that other citizens of Malawi are party to, then it is difficult to say that they are being prioritized enough,” she said.     

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