It doesnâ€™t always take a magic wand to turn a personâ€™s fortunes around. A little push could be all somebody needs to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is exactly what happened to Margaret Tethiwa of Machinga who, after grabbing at the straws of hope her hands could clutch, is telling a tale of hope today. BRIGHT MHANGO went to her village where she told him how it all happened.
Margaret Tethiwa lives in what we can agree to call the jungle. About 20 minutes from a tarmac road, there is no civilisation on either side of the road, but to the likes of Tethiwa it is a sign that there are other Malawians elsewhere.
That is Group Village Headman Magadiâ€™s area in Machinga on the banks of Shire River, an area located on a gentle slope overlooking the leeward side of a hill beautifully dressed by trees.
When she got married, Tethiwa relied on her husband, a fish seller, for almost everything. If he didnâ€™t bring food home, the household would go to bed hungry. She was the typical Malawian housewife who is nicknamed by some people as a â€˜goalkeeperâ€™ for only receiving what is sent her way.
â€œThose days are long gone. I have now bought pots, water dishes, shoes and chickens. I have bought school uniforms for my children and can now afford a constant flow of sugar,â€ said Tethiwa.
She has done all she so joyously speaks about by selling embroidery which she makes herself. As she speaks, she is fumbling over some bright orange ball of wool and making some kind of pattern, a hat or table cloth or something domestic.
Tethiwa was not alone in the grips of patriarchy and subservience to the male folk of the village. If no one told them to break free, they would still be in their veranda looking after their children and waiting on their husbands.
As one of its approaches to easing the poverty stress, ActionAid Malawi believes in womenâ€™s rights and empowerment. It came to the village and rallied women into a group for them to start a bank.
Olipa Misomali is the facilitator at the Machinga ActionAid Malawi office.
â€œIn Machinga, violence against women is high, polygamy is rampant and these loans enable women to break free from the patriarchy,â€ said Misomali.
There are currently 40 village banks, like the one in Magadi Village, in Machinga. Women with similar interests but not more than 25 come together and agree on what amount to give to the bank per month.
Immediately this money is given in, it is disbursed as loans with the softest of interest.
The women then do small businesses to make sure they repay the loan at the next sitting of the shareholdersâ€™ meeting. In Tethiwaâ€™s group, dubbed Kondanani, the women bake, do embroidery and sell agricultural produce.
Finess Patrick, secretary of Kondanani, says since the inception of the group in March this year, the groupâ€™s capital is at K139 000, a scary figure to mention in the back-country village like hers.
Patrick said every member buys shares at K200 each. There is no limit to the number of shares one buys. When a member borrows K1000, they are supposed to return K1 200.
â€œMy husband is not jealous at all; he actually supported me with the initial capital and bails me out when I cannot pay back. He sells fish and my income supplements his and we are happy. I sell tomatoes and I can point to cups and plates at home as some of the things I have gained from this group,â€ she said.
ActionAid trained some community opinion leaders who in turn facilitate the setting up of the loan groups. The group members also get credit training and are supported with farm inputs.
The idea is to kick-start the groups which can survive even after the donors are gone. Already, the K139 000 that Tethiwaâ€™s group has, there is no external money.
Issues of women empowerment are increasingly getting attention as the world races to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Last week, the UN brought together several parliamentary committees to make them aware that the gender agenda partly depends on them.
Representative of UN Women in Malawi Alice Shackleford bemoaned the fact that the Gender Equality Bill, for example, has spent 12 years on the shelves without being passed.
â€œOn behalf of the United Nations, I am asking the Malawi Government to pass the Gender Equality Bill,â€ Shackelford told MPs at a conference at Pacific Hotel in Lilongwe on Wednesday.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, she said the Bill would be an important tool in the move to advance women.
â€œDifferent levels need to work at once: pass the legislation but on the local level, education, health and protection services should be in place. Issues of food insecurity, high maternal mortality rate and early marriages are a sign that women need more attention,â€ said Shackleford.
Dr Mary Shawa, principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, said Malawi is on track to achieving MGD number five, which seeks to improve maternal health. She pointed out the village saving loans, the female appointments to top jobs and the fact that we have the first female president in southern Africa and the women representation in parliament as some indicators.
However, Shawa said there are still challenges to surmount.
â€œWe are technologically challenged; women produce a lot of agricultural produce but we do not have the technology to store and add value. Women also have little access to international markets,â€ she said.
Shawa said programmes such as One Village One Product are meant to broaden womenâ€™s access to markets. She also said school feeding programmes, establishment of early childhood development centres, enacting the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act as well as allowing pregnant girls back to school are some one the things government is doing to promote gender equality.
â€œWe are also sending female teachers to rural areas to act as role models to rural girls and we will soon be embarking on a popularisation of the laws where we will engage chiefs on some of the laws that are there such as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act,â€ she said.