Despite the myriad of challenges faced by Malawi, the country is making positive strides towards attaining gender equality and women’s empowerment. Malawi is one of the world’s least developed countries, ranking 171 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index (2011). Poverty negatively impacts on women who remain the poorest of the poor. Life expectancy in Malawi for males is at 51 and for females is at 53 with malaria, HIV/AIDS and malnutrition as the leading causes of death. A Gender Equality Act was enacted in Malawi in 2013.
Malawi is falling behind in achieving Millennium Development Goals with strong gender connotations such as the ratio of girls to boys in secondary education, ratio of literate women to men aged 15 to 24, share of women in paid employment and proportion of seats held by women in parliament.
Women’s political participation increased from 6% to 22% between 1994 and 2009. Joyce Banda, who was president of Malawi from April 2012 to May 2014, was the first female president of Malawi and only the second female president in Africa. This resulted in an increased number of women in top ranking positions such as the chief justice and chief secretary.
The population of Malawi is predominantly rural, with approximately 80% of the population residing in rural areas and engaged in agriculture, particularly subsistence agriculture. At least 70% women provide the labor force in the agriculture sector but only receive 10% of extension services (farmer education). The patriarchal systems, both in patrilineal and matrilineal societies, place women at a disadvantage in access to land and its proceeds.
Violence against women and girls is a real pandemic in Malawi due to patriarchal norms and values, 40% of women in a 2012 survey reporting they have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, 30% reporting experiencing physical violence and 44% reporting having experience psychosocial violence. One in three girls marries before the age of 18.
Women’s leadership and political participation
2014 is an important year for Malawi, with the first tripartite elections being held in May. This was the first time the people of Malawi voted for their local governments, members of parliament and president in a single election. Prior to the election, UN Women Malawi focused on enhancing women’s candidacy as counsellors and parliamentarians in partnership with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) and political parties. Following the elections, UN Women Malawi will focus on capacities of parliamentarians and particularly local councilors to advance gender equality sensitive legislation and policies. We are also working with elected public representatives to enhance access to formal justice for women and girls, to offset the alternative traditional justice system that impacts women and girls negatively. UN Women Malawi is also working to implement the Gender Equality Act’s quota of between 40% and 60% female representation in the public service.
Women’s economic empowerment
UN Women Malawi is focusing on women’s economic empowerment in terms of access to land and inputs by rural women and gender responsive agriculture extension services. We are partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) and FAO to implement its gender, HIV and AIDS strategy that identifies the limited access to inputs and productive farming by women farmers. The strategy aims to increases access to gender sensitive agricultural services and facilitate coordination and links between communities and other partners such as the Development Fund of Norway. UN Women Malawi is also focusing on a collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to implement the employment policy and review the cooperative policy.