Listening to the voices of women and girls in rural Malawi is essential to designing better policies — and mitigating risks from labor influx

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Listening to the voices of women and girls in rural Malawi is essential to designing better policies. The study finds that a multi-sectoral, concerted and long-term effort to empower women and girls is essential. | Photo credit: World Bank

For Malawi, rural access and connectivity are fundamental to the attainment of the sustainable development goals. Rural road development is therefore central to this aim. Yet often overlooked but equally crucial is a need to understand the effects of road projects on the lives of women and girls in poor rural communities when there is a sudden influx of (male) construction crews.   Many of these impacts can only be discovered and addressed by finding ways to truly hear the voices of women and girls.

The World Bank has been one of the first multilateral institutions to confront head-on the issue of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA), and Sexual Harassment (SH) risks, and further strengthen prevention and mitigation in Bank-financed operations. This included a comprehensive Action Plan informed by the recommendations of an independent panel of experts.

In this context, we conducted qualitative research in Malawi to better understand the dynamics of male labor influx within receiving communities, as well as how best to design responses that meet the interest of nearby residents. The study is based on 28 focus group discussions with people living in communities that hosted road projects, including male and female road workers, and additional interviews with road project staff, traditional leaders, secondary school principals,  and local service providers, such as police officers and medical workers. The interviews were mostly carried out in areas that did not have World Bank-financed projects to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

What did we learn?

Participants in local communities believed that road construction has a positive impact on their wellbeing and livelihoods increased economic opportunities, access to services, mobility, and the acquisition of new skills and cultures were referenced explicitly.

On the other hand, relationships between community members and incoming road workers were mentioned as the most powerful disturbance to social balance within the community. Those relationships resulted in pregnancies (and children raised by single mothers later), violence, AIDS/HIV, and marital conflicts. Labor influx has significantly increased women and girls’ exposure to various forms of GBV, and abuse of minors. Besides the direct exposure to GBV perpetrated by incoming workers, there were many references to increases in domestic violence perpetrated by spouses and family members as a result of liaisons with outside workers or family members’ fears that women would get involved with the workers.

Now, why does this happen?

A recurrent theme expressed by the women and girls interviewed describe the main (or only) way to rise in social and economic status as a woman in their community is through a relationship with a man in and of itself a reflection of both gender norms and a severe lack of opportunities. Poverty and severe deprivation that women in rural communities confront, combined with social norms according to which women and girls can be treated as mere objects of sexual desire, can often drive them toward acceptance of sexually exploitative paths.

The qualitative research ultimately uncovered multiple drivers behind the observed negative implications of labor influx:

  1. the existing level of poverty within host communities,
  2. gender inequality within households and communities,
  3. the weakness of local institutions to effectively protect women and girls, and
  4. power imbalances between incoming workers and community members.

In sum, possibly the most important takeaway from the study is that many harmful effects attributed to the road construction activities are caused not simply by the influx of outsiders, but the exacerbation of  existing deep imbalances in gender dynamics of power and influence in the local communities and worker camps.

Why are existing measures to prevent or mitigate risks from labor influx not necessarily effective in the view of interviewed women?

The answer is two-fold: First, because they do not necessarily address the underlying causes. Second, because they are not always designed in ways to meet the specific needs of women and girls.

The existing approaches for countering labor influx-related issues in the communities and camp sites studied had clear limitations: Community engagement prior to the start of road works would mostly focus on displacement from land and compensation rather than the imminent risk of social vices that increase the potential for GBV; if GBV was discussed as a potential risk, the problem was addressed by information campaigns made available to women and girls, though lack of knowledge and awareness was clearly not the main driver, as uncovered by the study. Local institutions, including traditional leaders, were most often perceived as powerless or unwilling to address problems related to labor influx, as people’s trust in local institutions was severely undermined. Efforts to build social responsibility within the construction industry, such as the signing of codes of conduct, was interpreted as a mechanism without teeth, a mere formality, while women workers held little trust in available reporting mechanisms, fearing retaliation.

How can development projects do better?

Existing interventions and strategies need to be more responsive to the specific needs identified by women and girls.  At the core of the report’s recommendations: A multi-sectoral, concerted and long-term effort to empower women and girls both economically and socially is essential to address the underlying causes of this complex problem.

Aside from the lessons that are specific to the context of labor influx in Malawi, there is one more key lesson to be learned: We must do better at listening to voices of those affected by development projects,  taking these viewpoints into account in a more systematic manner from the outset, while taking into consideration the risks involved in that process (see a dedicated blog on that topic). If we aren’t willing to openly engage an such matters, we will be unable to design the right policies to effectively address broader development challenges no less in the transport and infrastructure sectors, or any other sector for that matter.


Miriam Muller

Senior Social Scientist with the Poverty Global Practice at the World Bank

Sevara Melibaeva

Senior Transport Economist

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