Malawi takes steps to end poverty among women and girls

blantyre, malawi — Malawi and its development partners are trying something new to help the country’s most vulnerable women and girls get out of extreme poverty. Besides enhancing their socio-economic status, a new three-year program will strengthen their resilience to crises, shocks and disasters.

The U.N children agency, UNICEF, the European Union and the Irish government say more than 20% of Malawi’s 19.6 million people live in extreme poverty.

They said Tuesday women head over 75% of all families living in poverty amid violence and harmful practices that undermine their participation in economic activities.

The new Gender Empowerment and Resilience program is expected to benefit more than 500,000 people in nine districts, giving them access to social services and cash transfers.

The districts are Mzimba, Ntcheu, Balaka, Chikwawa, Mulanje, Mwanza, Neno, Nsanje and Zomba.

Shadrack Omol, UNICEF representative in Malawi, said experience has shown that parents and caregivers need to be supported with livelihoods and resources to support their children.

“That’s why this program is extremely important because through this program we will be working [with] parents,” Omol said, “to support them to have the right livelihoods and incomes to support their children to grow to their full potential.”

About $26 million is being spent to tackle challenges that would help give Malawi women access to economic opportunities and essential social services.

Besides cash transfers, the program will help promote access to social behavior change, nutrition, early childhood development, sexual reproductive health and prevention of gender-based violence.

Jean Sendenza, minister of gender, community development and social welfare, said in a statement that Malawi has previously made progress in expanding social protections to reach more vulnerable people. However, she says significant gender gaps remain.

Eneless Pemba, executive director for Chikondi Girls Project in southern Malawi, said she welcomes the program but says similar interventions haven’t yielded results in the past. That’s because there has been a tendency to impose solutions without asking what people really want, Pemba said.

“We sometimes feel like a girl-child just wants money while there are a lot of issues happening,” Pemba said. “For example when you talk about mental health issues, a girl-child, maybe her parents are sick or they don’t have food at home like hunger we are facing in Malawi now.”

Pemba, whose project teaches girls how to make sanitary pads and other skills, says there is a need to encourage girls’ entrepreneurship skills to help her find food for the whole family.

“There are other small businesses she can do while in school, which can be sustainable for a long time rather than a project which can be there for a year and phase out,” Pemba said.

Maggie Kathewera-Banda, executive director of the Women’s Legal Resources Centre, says there still are some people who need more than resources to help lift themselves up.

“Much as we have empowerment programs, where people are supposed to have the skills so that they can move out of poverty, we still have some section of population which are so vulnerable to the extent that they cannot move out of poverty on their own, they need a booster,” Kathewera-Banda said. “So as a starting point, cash transfers offer such kind of a thing.”

Kathewera-Banda says the impact of some projects may not be seen or felt because they focus on small groups out of thousands of people facing poverty.

However, EU Ambassador to Malawi Rune Skinnebach and Irish Ambassador to Malawi Séamus O’Grady said in a statement the program will help create an enabling environment for Malawi women and girls to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

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