“He helps me:” a note on household dynamics in rural Malawi

November 11, 2013

2013-11-11 Malawi-Gender Photo

Driving down the dirt road after meeting with vegetable farmers just outside of Blantyre, Celina (Kawas, Manager, Research) and I remained shocked by what we heard from women that day. We had spent over a week learning about the financial situation and needs of rural, low-income women in Malawi while conducting customer research for a local bank. By way of introduction, we heard women say “I am a farmer…I grow tomatoes, peas and maize” and the like, which is already surprising because we’ve found from our other research that women don’t primarily identify themselves with an income-generating role like being a farmer (it is usually as a wife, mother or homemaker).  But what continued to stand out was the answer to the question “…and what does your husband do?” Overwhelming, women answered “he helps me” and “he is just on the farm…helping me (emphasis mine).”

Throughout our 30 years of experience learning about the lives of low-income women in developing countries, Women’s World Banking has not researched many communities in which women recognize her own work as central to the productivity of the farm, especially in comparison to that of the man’s.  In fact, the statement “he helps me” runs counter to what we hear in most countries.

Women’s World Banking believes that in order to serve women well, we must understand the social, cultural and political context in which they live and the distinct financial needs that they face. And while women’s experiences and needs vary, from the Middle East to South Asia, one common finding is this: women’s work – both domestic and income-generating – is undervalued, if not completely disregarded, especially in rural communities across the world. In fact, one of our rural credit projects in Latin America—modifying loan assessment methodologies to account for women’s economic contribution—is aimed precisely at undercutting this bias against counting women’s work!

Image courtesy of PBS
Image courtesy of PBS

Why we were in Malawi

We stumbled onto this interesting finding while doing customer research for NBS Bank of Malawi, a local bank serving low-income populations with microfinance products. Malawi is a poor, agricultural country in southeast Africa, landlocked by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. NBS Bank looked to Women’s World Banking to provide insights that would shape the design of a savings product and its delivery channels to reach rural unbanked woman with savings accounts. We conducted 14 focus groups composed of low-income entrepreneurs and rural subsistence and cooperative farmers that were representative of the low-income markets NBS Bank is targeting.  We also conducted in-depth interviews to assess gender dynamics within the household, as well as cash flow and savings analysis to determine the ways NBS Banks’ financial products can best serve them.

Women in Malawi vs women in the rest of the world

In the rural Malawian households we visited, we interviewed the woman and found that she leads the family through both her domestic and agricultural activities. Her work is valued; indeed, it is primary. Her relationship with her husband is more collaborative instead of subordinate. They work hand in hand, tilling the fields and planting seeds, and she sells the crops in the market or through the cooperative. They make financial decisions together. She doesn’t hide her money from him. This is counter to what we know from research with low-income women of other parts of the world.

  • Main breadwinner. In Latin America women tend to identify themselves with their domestic responsibilities, such as childcare, cooking and cleaning. Furthermore, especially in agricultural households, women’s labor in the farm activities and her role in transforming agricultural products for sale are generally seen as extensions of her domestic responsibilities. In contrast, Malawian women seem to introduce themselves as farmers—primarily identifying themselves with their role as an income generator.
  • Financial decision-making. In India, women tend to hand over all their income to their husbands who then decide how money is spent and give their wives a monetary ‘allowance’ to spend for food, education and other household requirements. On the other hand, our research in Malawi showed that decisions about money seem to be made together, and there is strong collaboration between husband and wife when deciding how to use their household income. According to one woman: “when we have sold [our products] we tell our husbands ‘ this is how I came back’ and then we discuss what to do from there.”
  • Confidentiality. In different parts of the world, women are very concerned about whether their husbands or other family members know whether they have money saved. Keeping her savings secret gives a woman decision-making power over her money because family won’t know to pressure her to use it for other means. When we interviewed men in Malawi, they volunteered that they were aware their wives saved through savings groups and were even aware of how much their wives were saving per week and how the payout would be used. In some cases, the men considered their wives’ savings as money of the household. This could be either negative or positive: men control their wives money or that they have a cooperative financial relationship,.  However, we need to do more research to further understand the gender dynamics and its implications.


2013-11-11 Malawi-Gender Photo Woman w kids
One of our interviewees, a rural cooperative farmer, smiles proudly for the camera with her children.

Land ownership: The Malawi difference?

What is so different in Malawi that would engender a different social norm? Women all over Africa are associated with the cultivation of the land, but are not necessarily empowered by this role. Unfortunately, gender research was not the focus of our trip so we can’t say for sure. One idea is that there is a link with the fact that many rural communities in that part of Malawi are traditionally matrilineal, meaning land is passed on to women when they get married. Our hypothesis is that coming into a marriage with assets could give women a bit more ownership and empowerment through her various roles within the family as they are centered on the household farm production.

The gender dynamics in many households in rural Malawi seem to be different from what we have found globally. While a rural Malawi woman’s role in income generation may be relatively more important and/or recognized than that of her peers in Pakistan or Colombia, as a woman, she is still in charge of cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. Sure, she is treated more as an equal in the rural household, but her additional responsibilities make her day much longer… a condition perhaps many women in the developed world can relate to. So while there is lot more work left to do to improve the lot of women, rural women in this region of Malawi participate in household decision-making and have a greater sense of self-determination. These are essential foundations for empowerment, foundations we hope our work reaching these women with financial services through NBS Bank could heighten to deeper economic empowerment.