In Malawi, building gender equality in the fish sector is key to community wellbeing

April 15, 2022
Members of the Mwala Gender Group showcase their fish processing business during an event for International Women's Day. Credit: REFRESH

Margret Aaron Phiri understands well the hardships of gender inequality in Malawi. As a widow, she struggled to take care of her children without a man to bring in income. Business and work outside of the home are usually men’s purview, including in the fish sector, the dominant livelihood here because of Malawi’s many large lakes.

It wasn’t until she became connected with the REFRESH project, funded by USAID and led by Pact, that she began making enough money for her family. She joined a REFRESH-supported community group called the Mwala Gender Group, where she learned that women are just as capable as men at running businesses. Soon she’d gained skills to launch businesses of her own. She bought fishing gear and hires local boys to catch fish for her. She also bought a motorcycle that operates as a taxi.

“My household started changing immediately after I joined the group,” she says. “I have male and female children, and when it comes to distributing roles and responsibilities, I don’t differentiate assignments, and everyone has a part to play. In terms of food, I make sure they all get equal portions irrespective of their gender. I am able to pay their school fees through the businesses that I established after joining Mwala group.”

The main goal of the REFRESH project is to restore Lake Malawi’s natural fisheries productivity and ensure that its aquatic habitats are healthy and well-managed, that endemic fish populations are self-sustaining, and that Lake Malawi fisheries are sustainable by 2024. Fishing communities around Lake Malawi face many challenges, and Pact and its partners recognized early on that gender inequality is an important one. The project supports Malawi’s national development strategy of elevating the country to middle-income status by 2063.

“The gender aspect is critical to REFRESH because women are an integral part of the fish value chain in Malawi,” explains Marianna Balampama, Pact’s deputy regional director for Africa. “Women’s participation in decision-making is important to the sector, and overall, women’s empowerment is key for household and societal wellbeing. That is why we work with the government of Malawi and with support from USAID to put women at the center of the REFRESH project.”

The Mwala Gender Group – one of three REFRESH gender groups – is located in Nguwo and has 43 members, including eight men. Mwala is a Chichewa word for “rock.” The group’s members say the name they chose signifies unity, as they are rock-solid when they work together.

The purpose of the group is to build the capacity of its members to counter gender disparities in their households and community, as well as to economically empower members. This reduces women’s dependence on men, a contributor to gender-based violence, says Daud Samute, Pact's gender and youth officer in Malawi.

“There are many gender issues in the fishing sector, including so-called “sex for fish,” whereby women and girls exchange sex for fish with fishers, leading to the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” Samute says. “Fish auction pricing is in the hands of men, as they are the ones fishing, with women carrying a heavy burden at home.”

"The gender aspect is critical to REFRESH because women are an integral part of the fish value chain in Malawi."

Marianna Balampama, Pact’s deputy regional director for Africa

Marianna Balampama, Pact’s deputy regional director for Africa, meets members of the Mwala Gender Group on International Women's Day. Credit: REFRESH

REFRESH launched the Mwala Gender Group in 2019, spreading word through project-supported Beach Village Committees that help to responsibly manage Lake Malawi. Members meet weekly, where they contribute a small amount of savings to a group loan fund. In addition to discussing gender issues in their community and how they can improve them, they learn entrepreneurship skills and take loans from their group fund to start businesses. They also operate group businesses to bring in revenue, including a fish processing and trading business and two motorcycle taxis.

“This group is vital in countering issues affecting women engaged in fisheries in Nguwo,” Samute says. “They build each other’s capacity to address gender gaps at home. Since joining, members’ relationships at home have improved, with men taking up more household duties and women engaging in business. Most women in the group have indicated that their husbands used to prevent them from conducting business and usually imposed curfews on them. Now, they understand that they need to work together to improve their home affairs.”

The impact is also spreading to the wider community. “The members and their families are taking the ideas they are learning to their friends and neighbors,” Samute says. This is one reason why including men in the groups is important – so that the community sees the groups and gender issues not just as a women’s concern, and so that male members can share what they’re learning with other men.

For Kennedy Chipinga, one of the Mwala group’s male members, taking part has been life-changing. In the past, his wife handled everything at home and he made all of the family’s money.

“To be honest, I wasn’t getting good returns,” he says. He started bringing his wife to the group, and slowly he began taking on more duties at home and his wife earning income.

“Before, I never granted the opportunity to my wife to go to the market alone. Now when my wife goes, she makes more profit than I do.”

Today, the family is earning enough to expand their house. Chipinga says he plans to stick with the group as long as it’s together.

Member Margret Phiri says the same. With her fishing and taxi businesses thriving, she plans to move into raising livestock to build her income even more.

“I think I will be able to grow even beyond what I have already achieved,” she says confidently.