Sitwe (wearing the yellow shirt in the far right corner) with some of her friends in her village.
Sitwe (wearing the yellow shirt in the far right corner) with some of her friends in her village.

By Tara Finglas

Every child deserves a childhood but the reality for many children in Malawi is that playing with toys is quickly replaced with adult responsibilities and worries. Imagine not knowing where or when your next meal is coming from.

Two years ago life changed beyond all recognition for Sitwe Kalirani. Now aged 14 years old, Sitwe is head of her household and looks after her two sisters and brother. Making ends meet is a daily toil in their small clay coloured house that lies in ruins with the thatch roof caved in. Somehow Sitwe puts food on the table each day; one meal of Nsima for each of her siblings.

It is now winter in Malawi, Sitwe and her sisters and brother huddle closely at night in the remnants of the house that their mother built before she died. The crumbling walls and ramshackle roof leave them shivering as they try to sleep under the cold night sky.

Becoming head of the household was not a gradual occurrence, when her parents died she had to drop out of school and leave her studies and friends behind. Sitwe’s day would start at 6am collecting water and doing some farming work for her neighbours to earn some money. This work earned Sitwe just 100 Malawian Kwacha every day, which is less than $1.

Life for Sitwe brightened last year when she joined the Mchinji Social Cash Transfers Scheme. Since then Sitwe, her sisters Veronica aged 12 and Filipina aged 7 and her brother Zakira aged 13; are able to buy food and clothes. The change has been dramatic; going from one meal a day to two meals. 

Many children suffer the effects of malnutrition in Malawi with 1 million children and pregnant women being malnourished. With just 1, 800 Malawian Kwacha or $12 every month, Sitwe ensures that her sisters and brother get nutritious meals every day. Their meals have widened to include vegetables and meat, which are important for children to make sure that they grow up healthy.

‘We joined the scheme in July 2008 and our lives have changed,’ says Sitwe, ‘I and my two sisters are back in school and my brother will start school next term. He is excited to see his friends and to start studying again. We are happier and now we have time to play with our friends and I can play netball again. Going to school is important and I hope to be a teacher when I am older.’

When we grow old we hope that in our twilight years we will have the time to relax and do the things that we have always wanted to do but did not have the chance. But what happens if your son or daughter dies leaving children that need a home and someone to take care of them and your hopes of taking it easy fall to way side?

Yosefe Justin Impadwe aged 69 years and his wife Agnes Samson Impadwe aged 45 years are good parents having raised three children of their own and with two others still at home. As they got older they thought they would soon have time to themselves to relax and enjoy the fruits of their lives. Dreams of relaxation were soon quashed nearly two years ago when their daughter died after child birth.

Agnes has a sad story to tell but in Malawi it is not uncommon. Her son-in-law died two years from meningitis shortly before her daughter was to give birth to their new children. Agnes’ daughter, distraught with grief and fighting meningitis, gave birth to twins shortly afterwards. Sadly Agnes’ daughter died and so too did one of the twins. Agnes took home the surviving twin from hospital, and her three other grandchildren also came to live with her. Overnight Agnes and her husband gained four more children and hungry mouths to feed.

Right away the strain on the household could be seen; the new baby needed nourishment so Agnes had to breastfeed the child herself.  Both Agnes and her husband had to go back to work to earn money for food and clothes for the children.

Things started to get easier for Agnes last year when she and her husband joined the Mchinji Social Cash Transfers Scheme. The scheme bridged the gap so that Agnes could buy extra food for the children. With something so small as 2, 400 Malawian Kwacha or $17 every month, Agnes is able to rebuild one of her out house buildings so that she and her family can move into it. 

‘We also use the money from the scheme to buy subsidised fertilizer, food, school materials and uniforms, plates, blankets, soap, sugar, paraffin and milk for the youngest child. We now have enough food. Life was very difficult before the scheme but now life has improved, we need this assistance to continue,’ says Agnes, ‘before we had no food because in Malawi we rely on fertilizer to grow maize so there was no bumper yields. We were hungry but now we can grow food for our family and we are making ends meet.’

The scheme does not just help Agnes and her family on a day to day basis, it is also helping her to create a sustainable life for the children. By saving a small proportion of the money each month, Agnes and her husband hope to buy some goats to start a small business of their own. Through this venture Agnes hopes to eventually leave the scheme and support her family from the goats.


The Social Cash Transfers Scheme was launched on a pilot basis in Mchinji in September 2006. Through a partnership between the Government of Malawi, UNICEF and the National AIDS Commission (NAC), some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Malawi were targeted to improve their livelihoods and welfare. This Social Cash Transfer Scheme is a social protection initiative that is focusing on households below the poverty line and that are labour constrained. Households that are labour constrained means that no one in the household is able to work to earn money due to old age, illness or a disability.

In Mchinji over 9, 000 households are benefiting from the scheme. Due to the dramatic turnaround in circumstances in the daily lives of recipients on the scheme, the pilot scheme in Mchinji has been broadened to include six more districts. With financial assistance from UNICEF Malawi, the districts of Likoma, Machinga and Salima joined the scheme in 2007; and in 2008 the districts of Mangochi, Phalombe and Chitipa also joined the scheme.




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