Like most Malawian women, Chrissie Majanga grew up being told that a woman is only good in the kitchen and in bed.
The 61-year-old, who lives in Chindimba Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chanthunya in Balaka, says she spent her girlhood figuring out how many children she would have when married.
“I married young and spent my productive years depending on my husband for everything,” she says.
However, frequent encounters with businesswomen and working-class women have convinced her that money gives women a say over their body, life and future.
“When a girl stays in school until she can earn some income as men do, she no longer looks down on herself, but meets her needs and prosper without depending on a man. I believed that I was only good at cooking, managing the home and child-bearing,” says the woman whose family survived on doing piecework in her neighbourhood.
Majanga personifies the pressure placed on girls to marry and have children.
According to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2015, half of Malawian women marry before their 18th birthday and a third falls pregnant before turning 19.
Majanga knows that child marriages make poor girls submissive to violent breadwinners and likely to have more children and less income than their peers who remain in school longer.
IWM Swedish Development Partners is working with Women’s Legal Resource Centre (Wolrec) to eliminate debilitating poverty and social exclusion in her rural setting.
Majanga no longer wallows in poverty.
“More hands are better than two. With little money from piecework, my husband was struggling to feed us. As parents, we were failing to educate and take care of our four children” she recounts.
This prompted her to venture into business in 2018 when Worlec worked with women in Masau Cluster to form village savings and loan (VSL) group as a way of economically empowering them and eliminating gender inequalities.
Majanga borrowed K50 000 from the ‘village bank’ and started selling cloth wrappers locally known as vitenje in her community.
Nowadays, she does not only save her earnings and obtain soft loans without putting her assets at risk of being sold if she failed to repay.
Majanga has since replaced her leaky grass-thatched house, which was falling apart, with a modern four-bedroom house roofed with corrugated iron sheets.
She also owns seven goats which produce meat, milk and manure for her cassava field, where yields were falling as she could not afford fertiliser worth K22 000 per 50-kilogramme bag.
“My life has improved and the future looks bright. My children no longer starve and they have almost everything they need to learn,” says Majanga.
Her husband, Raphael, says he supported her to start a small business big enough to contribute to the household, but they lacked capital since banks are beyond their reach and inaccessible for households without registered land and property.
“Clearly, both of us needed to join hands to support our family. I supported her because I knew her business would increase our household income and make life better,” he explains.
Majanga’s group of 28 has ventured into honey production and winter cropping to grow their income and prosper together.
Chisomo Buleki, 25, from Kachomba Village, says the benefits from the cluster have challenged her to do more with her time instead of staying idle because she did not make it to university.
“The income from my small business gives me a huge say on economic decisions made in my family,” she says.
In 2019, Buleki borrowed K50 000 and opened a grocery shop.
“Now, my capital is K70 000 and I make a monthly profit of K50 000. This is not a small change. My three children get a balanced diet three times a day and they do not go begging for basics. I give them what they need,” she brags.
During their meetings, group members share business skills and solutions to their common challenges.
Wolrec project officer Mark Kambewa is pleased that the interventions are reducing gender inequalities and violence against women.
He explains: “Before the project, our baseline survey found that women’s economic dependence on men was fuelling gender-based violence.
“This is why we are empowering women to address economic gaps that hold them back in the fight against poverty, gender inequality and violence. It’s pleasing that most of them own successful businesses and are acquiring assets,” he says.
For IM Swedish Development Partners country director Steve Tahuna, the improved economic welfare of women accelerates sustainable development in rural communities.
He states: “Women and young people need support because they are most likely to use their earnings to support their families. This improves life of children who are future leaders.
“We are happy to complement government sefforts by funding civil society organisations to improve social and economic inclusion of citizens.”