Published on Africa Can End Poverty

An inclusive and resilient economy for Malawi depends on investing in women

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Malawi is unlikely to achieve middle-income status by 2063 without closing gender gaps, and economically empowering women. Photo: Homeline Media/World Bank Malawi is unlikely to achieve middle-income status by 2063 without closing gender gaps, and economically empowering women. Photo: Homeline Media/World Bank

Historically one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi has made important strides in reducing poverty and improving living conditions. Last year, the government released a long-term development strategy, Malawi 2063 Vision, aimed at achieving upper-middle income status by 2063.

As highlighted in a newly-launched Malawi Gender Assessment, the country is unlikely to reach its ambitious goals without closing gender gaps in economic opportunities. Recognizing this, the government has put forth policy reforms promoting women’s empowerment in education, health, protection from gender-based violence, employment and access to productive assets. A number of these initiatives have already borne fruit in decreasing fertility rates and boosting access to family planning.  

Now, perhaps more than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) shock, productive investments in women’s economic empowerment are needed. Malawi can see the biggest economic gains by closing gender gaps in three critical areas:

Supporting girls to complete school and transition to paid work:

Malawi has more women in the labor force than many of its neighbors (72.5%).  This is larger than the global average, as well as those of many low-income countries. This, however, does not translate into an increase in women’s income because women earn just 64 cents (512 Kwacha) to every dollar (800 Kwacha) earned by men.

Child marriage and teenage pregnancy underlie lower earnings. About 42% of women are married, and pregnancy and early marriage are the second most common reason for school dropout, after school fees.  Both early marriage and pregnancy appear to have risen during the COVID-19 shock. With heavy household responsibilities and lower levels of education, women are less likely to obtain quality work or be paid for the work they do.

Easing the financial strain of families with school-age girls, through cash transfers or similar programs, could help, as could providing livelihood and life skills training for adolescent girls. These also have the benefit of increasing economic independence.

Leveling the playing field for women entrepreneurs

While women own nearly half of businesses in the micro, small and medium enterprises sector, they earn a full 46% less in sales compared to their male counterparts. This stems from having fewer savings to start businesses in the first place, compared to men.  Women also have fewer years of formal education, on average, and carry heavier household work burdens that limit the time they can devote to starting and growing businesses.

Supporting women’s entrepreneurship is even more critical in a context of the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic: while 84% of all businesses saw a decline in sales during the first wave, women-owned firms saw a bigger drop in sales and operating hours, and were not able to cover operating costs for as many weeks as those owned by men.

Supportive interventions could include secure savings mechanisms or opportunities to access credit, both by improving women’s credit-worthiness as well as working with banks for more flexible collateral options, as well as boosting training opportunities for women entrepreneurs.

Increasing women’s access to agricultural inputs

The economy’s heavy dependence on agriculture, most of which is subsistence level and reliant on rainfall, creates serious vulnerabilities in the face of climate change. The agricultural sector employs 80% of the population and produces more than a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). Nearly 60%  of working women find their livelihoods in the agricultural sector, compared to 44% of men. Men’s plots are, on average, 25% more productive than those managed by women, largely because women are less likely to own title to land, and have less access to technology, mechanization and labor.

The potential from increasing women’s access to needed agricultural services is significant: a 2015 estimate suggests closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity could increase the country’s GDP by 2.1% and bring more than 238,000 people out of poverty. In order to achieve this, Malawi will need to provide greater incentives for households such as increasing women’s land ownership by including names on land titles, as well as supporting women to transition to cash crop farming, and improve mechanization and use of technology.

Empowering women and girls to stay in school, pursue employment and entrepreneurship opportunities and live free from violence promises benefits far beyond individual women. Malawi’s development potential will be greater with women at the center.


Alys Willman

Former Senior Social Development Specialist, Fragility, Conflict & Violence Group

Margarita Puerto

Social Development Specialist, World Bank

Violette Mwikali Wambua

Senior Social Development Specialist

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