She has been tending he sick husband for months. His decline had been slow in spite of having no medications to ease the pain and extend his life. He died of AIDS. She dragged herself through the customary death rites and funeral, while taking care of her 5 children and 2 grandchildren. Her daughter and son-in-law died of AIDS the previous year. Now she’s waits to see if her husband’s family will take everything in her house, as is their right by custom, but not by law.
Custom says the possessions are theirs to use to take care of her and her children, but as poor as they are, she isn’t expecting any care to come her way. Although there is a law against property grabbing, she has no money to hire a lawyer. Even if she did, her case would have little chance of being adjudicated quickly by the undersized court system.
She will be lucky if her family has a roof over their heads. She will have nothing…except hungry mouths to feed. The children will work the fields with her, but it won’t be enough. Before her husband became sick, the younger children went to school, but the funds are no longer available to make that possible…they will work the fields as well.
She will fall into extreme poverty and will be challenged to meet very basic needs like food, firewood and shelter.
This is Malawi
This is a common life in Malawi, a land locked SE African country about the size of Pennsylvania. The population is 18.6 million and it is one of the poorest countries on earth…bottom 10. Depending on the source, some say up to 74% of the people live below the poverty line of about $2 a day with an average per capita income of $310 per year in 2016. The average life expectancy is 47.
A People Ravaged by Disease
About 11.9 percent of Malawians have contracted AIDS…fewer in rural areas and more in the cities. TB and malaria are also prevalent. In a society where men are the bread winners and women tend to the home and children, an ill husband results in a shortage of funds at the same time that medical bills become due. To provide the necessities, belongings are sold, food is cutback and school payments are withdrawn.
The AIDS epidemic has left millions of orphans and widows in its wake. Many widows adding to their own burdens by taking in orphans. The United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 17% of children do not have living parents due to HIV/AIDS.
A People Ravaged by Hunger
Farming is a major source of income in Malawi. Whenever there is drought, crop production drops or may fail altogether. The following years may also result in lower production. Farmers cannot produce enough to sustain their communities and their income plunges.
Between 1990 and 2006, in Malawi there were 33 weather-related disasters (drought and flood), a rise from the 7 that occurred between 1970 and 1989, according to ActionAid.
During the peak of the food crisis, from April to May 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a health assessment in Malawi. It found that between October 2001 and March 2002, there was an average of 1.9 deaths per 10,000 every day. There was a cholera epidemic with 33,150 detected cases and 981 deaths; a fatality rate of 3%.
Yet, the number of people seeking aid at health facilities decreased by 25% in that same period. The study suggested that the health facilities were crippled by shortages of staff and drugs, as well as poor communication and transportation systems. As people began to prioritize food security over all else, health and seeking treatment at poorly maintained facilities fell to the wayside.
Starving people began to eat unsafe roots, maize cobs, sawdust, and boiled fruits and many contracted food poisoning and other stomach illnesses
In 2016, droughts, driven by El Niño, devastated the entire southern region and badly affected other parts of the country. As a result, an alarming 6.5 million people out of a population of 17 million were in need of food assistance. This means more than one in three people faced having little to no food for months on end.
In 2018 there are still 3.3 million people struggling to get food. Under advisement from countries providing foreign aid and the UN, the Malawi government has developed a National Nutrition Policy aimed at coordinating food security programs and USAID training is increasing the productivity of farmers and has increased access to high-quality health care.
Violence and Exploitation of Women and Children
For many reasons, including accepted customs, women and children are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, poverty and disease. Two in five females (!) and one in five males aged 18 to 24 believe it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife if she goes out without telling him, if she neglects the children, if she argues with him, if she refuses to have sex with him, or if she burns the food.
Throughout the last several decades, Malawi has consistently had some of the poorest development indicators, including poverty, food insecurity, and HIV prevalence, in sub-Saharan Africa, circumstances which have the potential to increase the vulnerability of all children and young women.
In addition, there is a large population of children who are orphans, work in agricultural or domestic settings, and/or do not attend school, which constitute an unusually large proportion of children who might be particularly vulnerable to violence.
Although there have been no nationally representative data on violence against children in Malawi to date, available studies have uncovered high rates of physical and sexual violence experienced in childhood, particularly among girls and very young children.
The findings from the survey indicate that violence against children is a serious problem in Malawi:
One out of five females and one out of seven males in Malawi have experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 years.
In addition, almost half of all females and two-thirds of males experienced physical violence prior to 18 years, and approximately one-fourth to one-fifth experienced emotional violence.
Nearly one-fourth of all children experienced multiple forms of violence.
The results of this survey have significant implications for the design and implementation of Malawian- specific prevention and response programs and policies to address abuse and violence against children.
Ending violence against children and young people is especially important because violence against children affects the entire society.
If sexual violence against girls is not addressed, there is very little hope of stamping out the spread of HIV.
If children are not safe from violence in schools, the goals of providing quality education for all will never be attained.
If the violation of Malawian children is allowed, there is little prospect of breaking the intergenerational cycle of violence.
Governmental Regulation Alone Will Not Be Enough
Reacting to the UNCEF findings regarding abuse and exploitation, principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Esmie Kainja, said in an interview that it is not government’s responsibility alone to stop violence against children and adolescents.
She said: “It is everyone’s responsibility. Parents and caretakers at home, teachers at school, religious and traditional leaders and care givers in different child related institutions; we are all responsible for ending violence against children.” This is the only way this deeply ingrained societal issue can be derailed.
Unicef supports government’s efforts to improve services for children affected by various forms of violence besides developing policies and legislation that protect children through practical programs like community victim support units (CVSUs) and Police victim support units (VSUs), among others.
The Role of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)
There are dozens of worthy NGOs working in Malawi addressing various national needs, but I’m only going to mention 2 because of their impact on the overwhelming amount of violence and exploitation of widows and children…the poorest of the poor.
Ujamaa / UNICEF
As one way of reducing sexual abuse in Malawi, UNICEF, in partnership with Ujamaa, a Kenyan charity, has started a program that teaches schoolgirls self-defense tactics.
According to reports, the lessons include physical skills such as punches and jabs, running for safety as well practical skills that would distract their assailants.
Over 25,000 schoolgirls have been trained in the program over the past few years. The schoolgirls learn the self-defense lessons for two hours every week over a period of six-weeks. Currently, the lessons are being conducted in seven districts across the country.
Ujamaa rape incidents dropped by half among schoolgirls in Kenyan schools after the training. With the self-defense training, Ujamaa trainers expect sexual assault incidents to be reduced in Malawi as well.
“In the past, girls were not reporting it but now they are indeed empowered to report abuses. Some are reporting the incidents to us teachers and others to their parents for action,” said a teacher involved in the training program. Their awareness, as well as fear of HIV and availability of services may also be contributing to the increased reporting.
Healthcare workers can provide an effective HIV post-exposure prophylaxis for immediately reported cases.
Ujamaa training also targets boys, teaching them how to intervene if they witness cases of assault.
Women of Grace Widows Organization / PantiPlus
Because the training against violence takes place in the schools, it is essential that the girls attend. A hidden deterrent to attendance is the lack of feminine hygiene products which requires the girls to stay home every month during their menstrual cycle, missing up to 20% of the school year. Even if washable pads are available, underwear is a luxury.
The Women of Grace Widows Organization provides sewing machines and teaches widows in the Mzuzu area (the largest city in Northern Malawi) how to sew PantiPlus kits. Each kit contains 6 washable pads, 2 panties and a purse to carry them to school in. The purse also includes soap, a wash cloth and a plastic bag to hold soiled items.
The widows earn money for each PantiPlus item they make, and the finished products are donated to schoolgirls in rural villages. Each widow can earn as much as $45 USD in a year, which is a large sum for a widow. This steady income is not affected by weather or drought and allows the widow to purchase essential food and medicine, and pay school fees for her children. With remaining funds, the widows purchase locally sourced materials and make skirts and dresses for additional income.
This well-thought-out project addresses several areas of need. It provides the widows and their children with an income. It allows schoolgirls to stay in school, which, not only improves their education, but allows them to attend self-defense training against sexual abuse. The lower incidence of sexual abuse reduces the cases of HIV/AIDS. With the reduction in HIV/AIDS there are more people working, poverty is reduced and food production goes up.
If you would like to learn more about this project, click on PantiPlus Project to see a slide show and several videos taken in Malawi, which were assembled by Margot McGorman. Margot has been involved in the Mzuzu sewing project and has traveled to the region multiple times with supplies and guidance. If you would like to connect with Margot, please leave your contact information in the comments for this article and I will forward it to her. Your contact information will not be made visible on this website.
How You Can Help
If you would like to contribute any amount for sewing machines and start-up sewing materials, donations can be made through PayPal at www.pantiplus.com. There is a donate button at the bottom of the home page. Just put Mzuzu Sewing Team in the ‘Add a Note’ box, and it will get to this project specifically.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches? Isaiah 10:1-3
O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. (Quran, in surah 4, verse 19)
“Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows a year’s maintenance and residence. But if they [the widows] leave (the residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly do with themselves” (Quran 2:240).