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A water irrigation scheme in the village of Mbenje, southern Malawi, is helping vulnerable female households to become financially independent.

Ruth George, 22, says the produce from her plot has enabled her to improve living conditions for her family and she is looking forward to helping to make her mother’s life better.

The scheme involved a borehole and pump house in the neighbouring village of Melo, as well as 4.5km of pipes. Work began in 2016 and took three months to complete. Since then it has been helping to increase resilience and food security in an area hard hit by drought.

The irrigation scheme supplies five hectares of land worked by 76 households. Some 761 households have been indirectly helped and people also travel from nine other nearby villages to access clean water at a kiosk in the village of Mbenje which was provided as part of the project. 

The project cost £52,000, provided by the Scottish government, and a planned five hectare extension will cost a further £35,000. Ruth, an only child, lives with her mother and says she has seen her life transformed by both the irrigation scheme and the water kiosk.

Ruth and her mother in Malawi, standing in their brick house

She explained: 'The major challenge that we had was the distance we used to cover just to fetch drinking water. We had to travel 4km just to fetch water. Women are now able to be economically independent. At first they would only have depended on their husbands, but now women take plots in the irrigation scheme and produce food and are able to take care of their children.

'I have a plot and I have benefited a lot. I am transforming my mother’s house through this scheme. I am about to re-roof it with tin sheets and I have bought five bags of cement and water buckets for my mother.' 

Ruth experienced the drought in 2015/2016 and said it was so difficult for people to survive they had to travel great distances to find manual labour and to cut firewood to sell. People also went to search of lilies which they turned into relish.

When Ruth was a little girl she lost her father and was taken away from her mother and given to her uncle from grade four up to grade eight. She explained: 'At grade eight I took my exams for leaving primary school but didn’t do well and failed. I was told to go back to my widowed mother. When I got back to her I couldn’t find the fees to go to secondary school so I resorted to repeating grade eight and fortunately got selected.

'I started form one but couldn’t afford school fees but there were different organisations that came in and put the resources together and paid the school fees for me. I was given a bursary but this would only cover the tuition fees,' she explained.

'As a family we couldn’t afford three meals a day or clothes and, apart from the uniform I had, I didn’t have any other clothes to change into. My mother went to manual work, fetching firewood to sell so that she could provide for me.' 

When Ruth got to form four she worked hard at exams and did well but decided to come home and help her mother.

She takes up the story: 'There was an opportunity to volunteer as a village promotion agent. I went for training and now help people here with sanitation, nutrition and health issues. The village has toilet facilities and I was the one who introduced that. I also encouraged people to boil the water.' 

The village leaders gave Ruth a plot in the irrigation scheme so that she could grow her own food and sell it. Christian Aid partner Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD) distributed some seed to the beneficiaries of the scheme for the first year only.

Ruth added: 'During the second year they said no - every man for himself - no more handouts, so I used the previous proceeds to buy seed for last year’s growing season. I planted tomatoes and realised about 25 dollars and also vegetables.' 

Ruth’s mother is also involved in the village savings and loans scheme, like a credit union. Ruth added: 'My plans, if I can, are for the opportunity in the future to make my mother’s life better by building a bigger house. I would also like to use the resources that I have to go back to school and study more.' 

Ruth’s mother is 45. She had three children but two passed away, one from diarrhoea and the other of malaria. She says she is very proud of her daughter, Ruth. 'She was able to do volunteer work in the community and gets small allowances that help her. I am very happy even though my husband died. Anything that Ruth thinks is right I will support her. I can’t plan her future for her but whatever the Lord blesses her with I will be proud of my daughter.' 

Ruth’s mother is also very happy with her new house, as they had previously shared the old house with the goats. She added: 'Life has really changed. We have three beds. I collect firewood to make money and also sell sand from the river bed for building work. 

Another woman who is now financially independent due to the scheme is Ruth’s grandmother Martha.

A widow, she had three children, two daughters and a son, whom she now works for as a housekeeper. She added: 'I’m not sure when I was born but I have lived for a long time and have seen different changes. Previously we had been living in poverty but now we can eat and the scheme has made it even better. My husband was still alive when we were living in poverty. When my husband died my property was grabbed away from me and the property went to the family of my late husband, so I came to my son. The scheme has enabled me to be a financially independent woman and I go to the market on a Tuesday and Thursday with my produce.'

Women's empowerment and gender equality