In Malawi over thirty percent of women are married by the age of eighteen. After helping a young woman deliver her baby, a middle-aged mid-wife in Sankhulani threw her hands up in the air and remarked exasperatingly, “These village women are not interested in education, all they want to do is to get married and have many babies.”
Traditionally men abstain from having sex with their wives when their wives are about six months pregnant. This continues until six months post-partum. Men often find other partners during this period and potentially lead to men contracting HIV through sex with other partners.
The practice of kupitakufa or widow cleansing is prevalent in Nsanje and has been another reason for the spread of HIV. When a woman’s husband dies, she is expected to have sexual relations to be cleansed so that the spirit of her dead husband will not visit her and curse her family. She has to be cleansed by having unprotected sex with a man whom the family has to pay in cash or cows to perform the cleansing. Professional cleansers could charge as much as $50 for this service even in a country like Malawi where most subsist on a wage of less than $1 a day. The tradition has been so much a part of the culture that some women ask for it.
Any one of the widow’s brother-in-laws could take her as a wife. Her property becomes his. She is sent home when there is no one to take her as a wife and her matrimonial property is taken and often she has to leave all her children to her in-laws. She has no rights to any one of them. Many of the older widows are left landless and without any earning power they are left in abject poverty.
Village women often multitask; breastfeeding their babies while carrying a bundle on their head on their way to the market to do the business of buying and selling. The babies often get distracted and let go of the nipple, exposing their mothers however this is such a common phenomenon that Malawian women have no qualms about displaying their bare breasts in public.
They till the land, chop wood, pump water with a baby on their backs. I saw a woman on one of my morning runs carrying a bundle of firewood to the market to sell while carrying her baby on a sling with two young children in tow, one of whom carrying a plastic bag which probably contained their food. In the early morning a row of women balancing hoes on their heads walking towards their plot of land preparing for the growing season, some have big loads of fertilizers.
In the village where I live, the road crew composed of almost all women cleared the dirt roads of weeds and level the surfaces. Our driver told us that they work for two hours a day in the early mornings for a week and get paid 4000 kwachas. Similarly in the fields, women with their children work the land with an occasional man dotting the landscape. This is back-breaking work all done with a hoe, clearing the land of weeds which have taken hold when the land lies fallow.
Women may work the land but the men own the property. It is indeed a harsh life for these village women with little education, nebulous social standing and insecure financial status.