Gender Equality

Gender equality in Malawi
Rural women, especially female-headed households, are amongst the poorest demographic in Malawi. Female-headed households earn only 60% of the annual income of male-headed households and represent the majority of ultra poor households in the country. Moreover, a vast 61% of women in Malawi fall into the lowest wage category (as opposed to 37% of men), while only 18% of women fall into the highest wage category.
Overall, Malawi is characterised by a high level of gender inequality. Although a complex and diverse society, including both matrilineal and patrilineal traditions, the small southern African country remains highly patriarchal. Women’s rights are limited, and women score low on all development indicators. In fact, Malawi ranks 174th out of 187th on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Gender Inequality Index.
The above is particularly daunting when one considers that the share of female-headed households in rural areas is 24%, and considerably higher than in urban areas (15%). Furthermore, women provide the majority of agricultural labour in the country and are responsible for approximately 70% of food production, and the vast majority of women work in subsistence farming (93% compared to 79% of men). Also of note, is the reality that, compared to men, a significantly higher number of women engage in seasonal or casual labour to supplement income (88% compared to 65% of men).
In addition to the above, women - especially female-headed households, face a number of significant challenges that contribute to their high levels of poverty:
  • Women are significantly less educated than men - adult literacy stands at 60.5% for women and 80% for men. Among the poorest, women have on average 1 year of education while men have on average 4 years. 
  • Female-headed households have on average 1/3 fewer working members than male-headed households.
  • Women dedicate a high proportion of time to domestic work. The majority of women in Malawi spend around 30 hours/week on domestic work, while only 4% of men do. More than 88% of rural men do not perform any domestic activity whatsoever. As a result, women have significantly less time to engage in income-generating activities, spending on average 17 hours per week on income generation compared to 27 for men.
  • Women are also much less likely to own land, despite the matrilineal system in the Central and Southern regions, by which land is supposed to be held by female family members. In fact, only 32% of women are individual holders of agricultural land, and female-headed households are most likely to own very small plots. For instance, 50% of female-headed households have less than 0.5 hectare of land (compared to 25% of male-headed households).
  • In addition, land ownership cannot be equated with control or decision-making power over land and resources. For example, over 21% of exclusively female-owned plots are managed by men.
  • The above trend extends to other spheres, as household-level decision-making in general, particularly the utilization of financial resources which tends to be dominated by men. Over 68% of women whose husbands have cash earnings report that husbands alone decide on how to use the money, and 19% of women report not to have any decision-making power at the household-level at all.
  • Women have less access to extension services (14% of women have access versus 18% of men), and less access to improved seeds and fertilizer. 
  • Only 24.3% of female-headed households own a mobile phone, as compared to 40% of male-headed households.
  • Child marriage is widespread with over 50% of girls married before the age of 18, 10% of whom are married before they turn 15.
  • Violence against women is a serious problem, with 41% of women reporting to have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in their lives.
  • More women than men are HIV/AIDS positive and almost a third of new infections occur in women under the age of 30, mostly attributable to coming of age ceremonies that introduce young girls to sex.
  • As a result of these, and other constraints, male-managed plots produce on average 25% more per hectare than female-managed plots.
FAO estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources than men, they could increase the yields on their farms by 20% to 30%. This is a significant reason to ensure that interventions focused on increasing productivity include a deliberate and comprehensive effort to target female farmers, particularly those of female-headed households.
In addition, investing in women, including female-headed households, is likely to have a significant impact on broader development outcomes relating to health and education of the community at large as spending patterns of women tend to be more in favour of family welfare-related expenditures. A case in point is the fact that, although on average poorer than male-headed households, malnutrition rates among children from female-headed households in Malawi are significantly lower than in male-headed households strongly suggesting that investing in women is critical to achieve broader development outcomes.
* Statistics and data referenced in this article can be sourced from the documents listed below. However, if further questions regarding data references exist, please contact the Malawi Oilseed Sector Transformation programme through the 'Contact' link on this website.
List of references:
  • Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, FAO. 2011. Gender Inequalities in Rural Employment in Malawi: An Overview. Rome, Italy: FAO.
  • National Statistical Office and ICF Macro. 2011. Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010. Zomba, Malawi, and Calverton, Maryland, USA: NSO and ICF Macro.
  • National Statistical Office. 2015. Malawi MDG Endline Survey 2014. Zomba, Malawi: National Statistical Office.
  • National Statistical Office. 2012. Third Integrated Household Survey(HIS 3) 2010 - 2011. Zomba, Malawi: National Statistical Office.
  • Republic of Malawi and World Bank. 2007. Malawi Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment: Investing in Our Future. Lilongwe, Malawi.