Malawian Girls Confront Country’s Financial Gap Through Literacy

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Courtesy of Student Driven Solutions

Veronica Alexander has started a small business selling fritters.

(WOMENSENEWS)–To support herself and her child, Miriam Kansungwi runs a small business. Sometimes she sells water, other times she has tomatoes to offer. When the 19-year-old single mom doesn’t have enough capital to run a business she earns money by helping people draw water from boreholes.

Some days Kansungwi makes 400 kwacha ($0.50), other days she makes 1200 kwacha (just over $1). She has neither a formal bank account nor is she part of any of the smaller independent, informal village banks that have mushroomed in the country.

While she makes sure her 2-year-old daughter eats daily, she occasionally goes to bed on an empty stomach so she can invest the extra change in buying materials for her business.

She gets by day to day but if her toddler gets sick or unexpected financial obligations pop up, her only plan is to pray. “God will always take care of us,” she said, smiling while stroking her daughter’s hair.

Kansungwi is an example of what life is like for most teens in Malawi, especially girls, who from a tender age are raised to care for their men and not be independent.

By age 19, a third of Malawian girls are married, 7 percent have given birth and only 13 percent are in school, according to a 2010 government report. Malawi’s cultural expectations and traditional norms are largely to blame for this trend. Cultural practices like hyena, a practice in which teen girls are told to sleep with a grown man to ensure fertility, lead to many teenage pregnancies and early marriages.

A lack of financial independence continues to negatively impact girls beyond adolescence. Most Malawian women are not financially independent. The demographic and health survey of 2010 found that 53 percent of Malawi’s poorest women reported that their husband mainly made decisions about how to spend the couple’s earnings. Only 17 percent of Malawian women have bank accounts and fewer than 11 percent have access to credit. In comparison, only 7 percent of households in the U.S. are unbanked, meaning no one in the household has a traditional checking or savings account.

The Malawi labour force survey of 2013 found that banks discriminate against female entrepreneurs and they are financially excluded from Malawi’s economy despite proven benefits of female business ownership. Malawi’s female unemployment rate is 26 percent, compared to 82 percent of Malawian men aged 15 to 49 who are employed.

Skills Needed

Around the semi-rural areas of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, one is likely to meet several teens whose stories reflect these alarming statistics. Some, like Faith Mlauzi, try their best but without the necessary skills can’t get too far.

“For some time I worked as a maid. I also started running a small business, selling fritters, but the business collapsed because I did not have the skills to keep it afloat,” said Mlauzi, 18, a high school graduate who lives in Kauma, eight miles from the city center.

For girls who dropped out of school before completing the primary level the situation is even worse. Seventeen-year-old Audetta Tungani dropped out of school in the seventh grade. She relies on her 74-year-old grandmother to support both herself and her 1-year-old daughter.

“Sometimes I do casual labor carrying water for brick making,” she said. When the brick making season is over she must find other sources of income, which isn’t easy.

Experts interviewed for this article said many of the problems these girls face could be eradicated if the Malawian government intensifies financial literacy studies in school curriculums. The saving culture and other financial literacy skills could help teens like Tungani sail through the hardships of living in the developing world.

“There is a need for multiple stakeholders to be used in the delivery of financial education programs in Malawi,” said Madalitso Chamba, the principal examiner for consumer protection and financial literacy at the Reserve Bank of Malawi.

Financial Literacy

Several organizations have heeded the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s call and are now offering financial literacy trainings to girls. Among these organizations is Student Driven Solutions. Founded in 2014, the group helps 15- to 25-year-old females start their own businesses. (This story’s author is a member of the organization.)

Teens in the project practice financial literacy skills like prioritizing needs before wants, saving and planning for emergencies.

“Before I joined SDS, I was spending my money uselessly,” said member Veronica Alexander, 20. “But now I must prioritize between needs and wants.” For example, when her mother gave her money to buy a dress for Christmas Alexander decided to save the money and later used it to start a small business selling fritters. She makes 4,5000 kwacha per month ($60), two times Malawi’s minimum wage, and she deposits the profits in a savings account she opened with a local bank.

“I have learned business management skills which I am applying in my zitenje [African textiles] business,” said Janet Dzakana, 18, a former grade 10 dropout. With the profits she makes she now pays her own school fees for night school.

The small savings are going a long way in helping teens in the project, said Rebecca Gross, founder and executive director of SDS. “Without a dedicated effort to increase female financial literacy and open doors for their financial independence, Malawian teens will continue to be disenfranchised. Considering that women will invest 90 percent of their income in their families, such disenfranchisement falls at the burden of the entire nation,” she said.

This initiative, along with ones like Tingathe and events like past years’ financial literacy weeks, may go a long way in reducing the gap between males and females in terms of financial literacy and business education in Malawi.

“When I dropped out of school and had a baby I had to rely on the baby’s father for support. At times this was embarrassing because he could not provide everything we wanted,” said SDS member Lonely Khogolo, 18. “With the business startup skills I was given I started running my own business selling food to people at our local market.”

She doesn’t make a lot but the income she earns has enabled this once dependent teen to gain some sense of independence. “It feels great to know that I can provide for my own needs,”  said Khogolo.

This story was funded through a generous grant from Say it Forward in support of  our teen journalists.

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