Malawi Gender Equality Women Empowement
Education empowers girls to make good decisions about their family life
Emily Spahn/USAID

“I'm convinced that a world in which women and girls are treated as equal to men and boys, is safer, more stable, and more prosperous. – President Barack Obama in a statement commemorating International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015

To end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies, women and girls must be empowered and USAID is committed to the full participation of every member of society. USAID’s development mission is a world in which women, men, girls and boys enjoy equal economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights and are all empowered to secure better lives for themselves, their families and their communities.

In Malawi, this goal is even more pivotal due to the country’s widespread inequalities.  Malawi ranks 173 out of 188 on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) and has the eighth highest child marriage rate in the world. To counteract these disparities, USAID works to give women and girls more opportunities by integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment into all of the development efforts.


  • Gender Based Violence (GBV) remains a serious development challenge in Malawi. In 2014, USAID included Malawi as one of 35 GBV priority countries due to the high rates of child marriage in the country. USAID’s response falls under the U.S. Government’s three major strategies:  “Ending Child Marriage and Meeting the Needs of Married Children: The USAID Vision for Action” the “United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, and the “Global Health Initiative Strategy.”
  • Under the Global Health Initiative Strategy, GBV issues are integrated into project strategy, design, and implementation. One of the overarching goals of these interventions is to mitigate and reduce GBV, particularly through improved referral and screening programs. Activities are focused on HIV/AIDS; maternal, neonatal and child health; and family planning/reproductive health. Interventions in these areas include:
    • working with communities to increase their involvement in preventing mother-to- child transmission of HIV;
    • addressing norms that increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to HIV infection;
    • implementing community mobilization activities that provide outreach to women and girls;
    • improving interpersonal communication and counseling skills of health providers to overcome gender barriers;
    • Including GBV screening in HIV testing and counseling sessions and providing client referrals to existing Victim Support Units and post‐exposure prophylaxis services at the community and district level; and
    • Testing approaches for reaching youth to address cultural healthy behavior.
  • Education is essential for empowerment. The attrition rate for girls in Malawian schools is extremely high, and the consequences of girls leaving school early are profound. Studies show that more years spent in school result in improved health outcomes for women—and their communities. In fact, each additional year a girl stays in school is associated with a 10 percent increase in wages, increased life expectancy, and reduced fertility.  According to the 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 51 percent of men and 38 percent of women ages 20-24 had completed primary school, showing substantial attrition, particularly among girls. Out of every 100 girls who begin Standard 1, only about three will enter into secondary education. Of those three, only one will enter university.

USAID’s Early Grade Reading Activity (EGRA) helps keep both girls and boys in school by developing reading skills. In FY14, USAID reached 617,981, out of an estimated 1.7 million children attending Standards 1-3. The Malawi Early Grade Reading Improvement Activity (MERIT) will continue the work EGRA has begun by directly addressing some of the issues that result in low transition rates of girls into secondary school. For example, the creation of safe learning environments for reading will reduce instances of bullying and sexual harassment, which contribute to girls dropping out and repeating grades.

USAID’s Girls Empowerment through Education and Health Activity (ASPIRE) works in Malawi to improve education and health outcomes for over125, 000 adolescent girls. ASPIRE improves the reading skills of girls in upper primary school so that they are better prepared for their future. The activity also encourages the adoption of positive sexual and health-care seeking behaviors, while simultaneously addressing some key cultural barriers that limit girls’ access to schooling. To achieve this, ASPIRE trains teachers, parents, and communities in methods to best support adolescent girls.

  • Sustainable Economic Growth interventions include activities that increase women‘s access to income and productive resources as well as their engagement in non-traditional roles. This results in increased female income generation and nutritional impact at the household level and ensures a greater role for women in economically productive activities such as village savings and loan (VSL) groups, agribusiness groups, small scale irrigation groups, and livestock activities.

In one activity, VSL groups saved $2.4 million over five years in the eight districts of intervention.  The Feed the Future Integrating Nutrition into Value Chains activity ensured that more women were included in training opportunities: At least 50 percent of new lead farmers and lead farmer assistant trainees were women. Focus group discussions with beneficiaries from the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement activity revealed that women held about 70 percent of leadership positions.

Investments in biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation, and sustainable landscapes account for and address gender-specific vulnerabilities to climate change and promote forest-related livelihood opportunities that are of particular relevance to women.

USAID sponsored three faculty members, two of whom are women, from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources to begin Ph.D. studies at Land Grant Universities in the United States.

  • In the Democracy and Governance portfolio, USAID helped civil society organizations (CSOs) engaged in grassroots advocacy, and supported their demands for quality services and sought to ensure that public sector decision-making responds to their interests, including women’s interests, at the local level.  By increasing citizens’ opportunities for engaging with government officials, activities cultivated democratic legitimacy and inclusion in local development processes. 
  • In parallel, support to newly elected councilors and district administrative staff made local governance institutions better able to respond to the increasing demands for accountability and services.  As a result of this support, councilors and district staff, including women staff, are collaborating more effectively and focusing more attention on improving service delivery and public financial scrutiny.