Mainstream gender in policy and programs to end poverty and hunger

Today marks the 101st annual International Women’s Day and the theme “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty” as declared by the United Nations (UN) hits close to home for Malawian women, the majority of whom live in rural areas where food insecurity remains a real threat.

Across the rural expanses of Malawi, the agricultural productivity of female farmers compared to male farmers is relatively low.  According to the report “Gender and Poverty Reduction in Malawi,” written by Malawian economist Naomie Ngwira and published by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, national maize yield was only 1,353 kg/ha for female farmers compared to 1,384 kg/ha for male farmers in 2008.  In the same year the average hybrid maize yield was only 1,887kg/ha for female farmers compared to 1,915kg/ha for male farmers.  The results repeated for rice and all other food crops except sorghum.

This disparity creates a vicious circle of poverty for female Malawian farmers; according to the most recent African Gender and Development Index for Malawi, women make only 71 percent of what men make in smallholder agriculture.

Gender-based stereotypes and discrimination underlie these issues and are problems that are difficult to “take to task”.  However, a call to action can and should be made to the Malawian government to mainstream “engendered policy”.

Here’s why:

Women living in rural areas tend to have less land – Ngwira’s report states that female farmers in Malawi on average have 0.8 hectares of land compared to 1.0 hectares for male farmers.

“Land grabbing” is one reason for this disparity.  The pervasive problem came up in a recent interview with Tadala Mawindo, a pre-teen girl of Che Mboma village.  Tadala recently returned to school after staying home to care for her younger sisters and her mother, Flomina Mawindo (pictured), who is struggling with mental health issues.  She attributed her mother’s mental health issues to stress, and the stress to problems such as land grabbing.

“When my father was alive he was encouraging thieves to steal money and household items from the house,” said Tadala.  “He wanted the family to suffer.  At that time my mother was working very hard and she was strong.  She woke up in the morning, went to the market, did business and bought food – everything.  My mother was in charge at home.

“When there was a rumour that she wanted to buy land is when he started inviting thieves at home, so that my mother would be broke and would not have money to buy the land, so that she would lose her business, lose everything, then go back to him.

“After my father passed away in 2004 my mother bought land and started building a house.  But the family of my father was mocking her that she could not manage to build a house.  They were jealous, so they were trying to do some tricks with magic so maybe they could kill my mother, so that if she died they could grab that land to sell, and we would suffer.”

In addition to having, on average, less land, female farmers also have less labor and less access to inputs, credit and extension.  According to the 2008 National Agriculture and Livestock census (NACAL), only 49 percent of female farmers got fertilizer subsidy coupons compared to 54 percent of male farmers.  And according to the 2008 Malawi Gender and Development Index, only 10.7 percent of women compared to 14 percent of men had access to credit.

These disparities can be attributed to lack of will to move the gender agenda forward at the top policy making and planning levels.

A review done by the Sector Working Group on Gender in June 2010 observed that “Gender does not have sufficient presence within the ministries at central and district level.  While project oriented activities are being conducted in the area of gender-based violence and the 50/50 Campaign, little is done to develop a broad ranging network and an advocacy campaign and an M&E system to ensure the capacity building and mainstreaming of gender across all sectors.  The present focal gender‐point approach does not have a face at the political and decision making level.”

One example of government’s failure to mainstream engendered policy is the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS), formulated in 2006 with the overriding philosophy of accelerating economic growth through infrastructure development as a means to sustainable poverty reduction.  Of the ten areas prioritized by the government gender is not among them.  Gender was only included as one of five subthemes under the “social” development theme.

Systemic problems require systematic policy solutions.  Government must mainstream gender in development planning and implementation; train public policy makers and managers in gender issues and development, fund projects only if and when they have planned and budgeted for engendered aspects, require reporting on gender targets , conduct gender audits, plan and implement gender sensitive programs, especially in education and agriculture, reform laws that still allow for discrimination and change the penal code to punish offenders adequately.

In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon, “Rural women… play crucial roles ensuring food and nutrition security, eradicating rural poverty and improving the well-being of their families yet continue to face serious challenges as a result of gender-based stereotypes and discrimination that deny them equitable access to opportunities, resources, assets and services”.

Malawians cannot hope for the eradication of rural poverty or food and nutrition security without first addressing the plight of the rural Malawian women who wake up every morning to toil in ancestral gardens, against all odds.

It is the responsibility of government – not just the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development but policymakers from each department and at each level – to mainstream engendered policy in Malawi, improve the odds for rural Malawian women and fight to end poverty and hunger – problems that, unlike gender-based stereotypes, do not discriminate from male or female.

With files from the Daily Times’ Sellina Nkowani

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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