Village banks are not all about money—the savings and loans—but also closing gender gaps in homes that were once over-dependent on men.
The world is a see-saw where parity cannot be achieved without exerting some weight on the lighter side. This swing of power is not another theory from university-baked brains, but a certainty of a rural woman whose experience shows gender equality is mere talk until the country acts decisively to eradicate one of the challenges that keeps the Malawian woman as desperate as a beggar—poor access to financial services.
“We have been talking about gender equality and ending domestic violence for years, but is that enough to free women from abuse and underestimation when they rely on men’s pockets for nearly everything?” wonders Margaret Phiri of Kamdaya Village, T/A Mabulabu in Mzimba.
Until last year, the mother of three had been relying on her husband, a carpenter. She confesses feeling mentally tortured every time her husband had no money for her needs. Her dejection sometimes soared to near-fight quarrels as she started to distrust him—suspecting he was wasting money on extra-marital affairs.
Thus, she became your usual woman at a time Finscope studies show that only 19 in every 100 Malawians have access to financial services.
The World Bank reports that women constitute the majority of the financially excluded aggregate since cultural and power dynamics often deny them the right to own land and other assets that banks require to guarantee loans. The plight can be worse in rural areas, the home of over 80 percent of the country’s population, because banks and other formal financial institutions are concentrated in urban areas.
As financial inclusion campaigners are petitioning hard to ensure even rural dwellers have access to savings and credit facilities, Phiri and her community are doomed to pay an extra K3 000 (about $7.50) to travel to and from the nearest banks at Kasungu Boma.
But Phiri is no longer your ordinary woman. Since last year, she has been saving bits of the money she used to spend excitedly, earning the ease to acquire soft loans for growing her husband’s carpentry shop and investing her returns in a small-scale business.
Of course, banks are yet to open a branch close to her hilly locality—buttressing prevailing misconceptions that the financial services are exclusively meant for rich townspeople.
But after a lengthy wait for financial inclusion, the unbanked community has found ways to save even a K100—thanks to the establishment of village savings and loan groups spearheaded by the Church and Society of the Livingstonia Synod last year.
Phiri says: “Since I joined the village banking groups in June last year, I am able to borrow money to buy timber and other necessities for the carpentry business. When we sell the furniture, we pay back the loans and I invest the profit in my small business—meaning we are sharing the burden of raising our children and developing our home.”
Last year, she borrowed K115 000 (about $287) which she used to buy a cow and cement for the floor of her house.
Fashioning a chair near the house, her husband, Goodluck, affirmed the transformation and role-sharing unfolding in their home.
He said: “We have grown up being told that two heads are better than one. What is more pleasing for a man than having a partner who works hard and contributes to household income? I am happy to see her doing business and saving her profits. Together, we are sharing the costs and keeping something to fall back on in hard times.”
The cash injections have also helped cement their relationship, with the man admitting: “I started involving her more in decision-making because she is not a beggar, but a true partner.”
Even Rosaria Mkandawire, an elderly woman who was a teenager when Malawi became independent 50 years ago, agrees that gone are the days women could lie on their laurels and expect their husbands to finance their needs.
“I joined the banking groups because the young women are saving huge sums of money. I would have been a rich and happy granny if we had a culture of saving when I was their age. Sadly, dependency syndrome was fashionable when I was energetic,” says Mkandawire, who has three grandchildren subsisting on her savings.
For youthful Josephine Loole, her family is no longer hard pressed to pay fees for her two children who learn at Emfeni Community Day Secondary School. The livelihood and income of the family has been improving, thanks to a poultry business catalysed by a soft loan she got from her savings. The loan attracts an interest rate of K25 for every K100.
Besides, the weekly meetings—where they deposit their savings and acquire loans—offer a rare opportunity for members to know each other and discuss issues affecting them.
According to Maria Nyangulu of Umoza Club, the issue that tops the agenda is gender equality and women’s empowerment.
“The ability to earn and save is increasingly persuading men to start treating women with respect. We do not take this for granted. We often engage each other how we can turn this success story to ensure we walk together with men as equals in developing our homes, areas and country,” says Nyangulu.