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The life of a Malawian woman

Concern's Stella Kachoka works with many of her fellow Malawian women, helping improve their lives and that of their families. Here she writes about Esther Phiri, a woman she has come to know through this work.

Like many Malawian women, Esther Phiri married her husband when she was only 17. Since then she has had eight children, three of whom are married with children of their own. For a number of years after they got married, Esther and her husband earned money by selling tobacco. They owned a vehicle, oxcart, cattle, and small grocery shop. “I was a boss, respected and able to sell items in my shop” Esther remembers.

However, when her husband married his second wife, he started spending more and more time and resources with his new family. Esther found she could not tend to all the farming duties on her own, as well as provide for her young children. She could not produce the same amount of crops to sell, and as a result had very little income coming in. “I could not manage to send the children to school”, she says.

During this particular year, Esther also suffered from bouts of illness. As a result, her main food crop failed. Esther has never recovered from those hard years. She still struggles to make a living from what crops and animals she can tend to.

Although her husband does not play an active role in helping

Women in Malawi

The average life expectancy for Malawian women is 38 years. They are the poorest and most vulnerable members of Malawian society. Basic health and education facilities are often not offered to women. This often results in significant health problems for them and their children.

Historically, women have been unable to complete even a primary education, and are therefore at a serious disadvantage in finding employment. Accepted economic and social practice hampers the ability of women and girls to gain an education. The literacy rate among women between the ages of 15 and 45 is less than 37%. Male literacy in the same age group is about 45%. Girls drop out of school more frequently than boys do. In the final year of primary school only about 25% of students are girls.

to take care of the farm

and family, he still is seen as head of the household. As Esther explains, she often has little choice but to go along with the decisions made on her behalf: “All decisions in my family are done by my husband, getting medication, what to grow and buy, education and family planning.”

Esther’s daily life

A typical day for Esther starts at 4am, when she begins to prepare for the long day ahead of her. She must tidy the house and yard, draw water from the local well, collect firewood and begin washing clothes and dishes. In order to prepare meals for her family she must first pound the maize grain into a flour which is cooked until it forms a thick porridge. This is served with “relish”, a sauce of meat or vegetables. Once the morning duties have been finished she must make her way to the fields and ensure her crop is growing well, and in time for the harvest in a few months.

Often her farming can be interrupted with calls to attend funerals of neighbours and attend to sick relatives. She is always very busy and tired, and she sometimes goes to bed without having eaten dinner.

Although Esther leads a demanding life, she still finds ways to be involved with her friends and family. Neighbours often come to her for help in settling disputes, or organising the funerals of other women. She is also a member of her local church. However, involvement in these activities still belies the fact that women often do not have a strong voice in their communities. “Women in my village are not used to talking freely in meetings. Even when they are, they often hold back information that reflects badly on themselves or others.”

Concern staff are working with women such as Esther to provide them with a safe and open forum to express their needs, worries and problems. Only through this empowerment can women like Esther ever break the daily grind that life in Malawi presents for the average Malawian woman.