Rhoda Ndhlovu from Engucwini in Mzimba has no kind words for her first husband. The man, to whom she was married for 11 years, would take all the proceeds from their tobacco farming.
Ndhlovu explains: “We started tobacco farming in 1985. I would do all the farm work by myself while my husband was drinking beer. Tobacco growing is tough work, from the nursery all the way to maturity. Surprisingly, he was making all financial decisions after selling the leaf.”
The mother of five says her husband would only give her money for two wrappers (zitenje), saying as a woman she had no say on money issues in the family.
She decided to divorce him. Later, Ndhlovu remarried.
However, the second marriage proved to be no different from the first. Her new husband would again spend tobacco proceeds on other women.
“I will never forget the year we made K155 000 and I only got K3 000. It really pained me, considering all the work I had put into farming. I decided to use the money as capital for my usipa [small dried fish] business,” says Ndhlovu.
When she could not take it anymore, she divorced her second husband. She currently sells her tobacco, dubbed the green gold, independently at Mzuzu Tobacco Auction Floors; a decision that has empowered her financially as she is now able to support her family.
While Ndhlovu might think that she was the only one going through this, Leah Phiri from Mahuza Nzima, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mtwalo, who got married in 1995, says she too had no say over the profits from growing tobacco.
“I had my own portion of land where I was growing tobacco, but my husband would take all the proceeds. I had no say over it and the money I worked hard for. He died in 2010 and since then, I feel my life has changed for the better,” Phiri explains.
T/A Mtwalo says such cases are common in his area. He says it is not an issue of land ownership, but selfishness and greed on the part of the men.
“Most of these men desert their families when they grab the money. We, however, have community victim support unit [VSU] or courts of law that intervene in these cases,” he explains.
Mtwalo narrates that through the VSU’s intervention, most families share the money.
T/A Kabunduli from Nkhata Bay says women from his area now join their husbands to Mzuzu Auction Floors to avoid being fooled by men who change colours like chameleons during the tobacco marketing season.
Minister of Gender and Child Affairs Patricia Kaliati says her ministry is aware of women who are abused financially after tobacco sales.
The minister says it is high time women stopped buying love by letting their husbands go to auction floors on their behalf.
“Women can do it without depending on their husbands and use the money to develop their households. After all we [men and women] are equal,” she says.
Kaliati explains that her ministry is sensitising women to the importance of financial independence.
“We want these women to stand up to the men and tell them that they are not money making machines; they should work as a family and enjoy the profits together,” says the minister.
Director of NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN), Emma Kaliya, who is one of the country’s top women rights defenders, says this is a big problem that needs urgent attention.
“During the tobacco marketing season, cases of wife abandonment rise at Kanengo Police VSU. We have been arranging transport for women deserted in Lilongwe by their husbands all the way from Mulanje,” she says.
Kaliya says her organisation is currently handling a case of a woman from Lilongwe whose husband left her stranded in Chitipa without any support after toiling together during the last growing season. The organisation is now sourcing funds for her transport.
She says Chinkhoma Tobacco Auction Floors tops the list as most men lodge at the trading centre to ‘enjoy life’ till they drain all their money.
“When they get home, they cheat their wives that they have been robbed,” she says.
Kaliya says some men take their wives shopping in town and thereafter send them home while the men remain in town for fun until all their money is finished.
“Some men have even become polygamous, just to use the women as labour popularly known as ‘tenants’, thereby making more money,” she says.
According to Kaliya, most of these marriages end as soon as tobacco markets open.
This raises the question: What are the women doing in self defence?
Kaliya explains that most of these women are protesting silently by abandoning commercial farming, opting for subsistence farming.
She says her organisation is empowering women through agriculture and economic empowerment programmes.
“To avoid bringing conflicts into homes, this programme brings on board both men and women and sensitise them to using their profits wisely,” she explains.
Tobacco growing is tiring. Growers start tending nurseries from July where seedlings are looked after for two months, before being transplanted in the fields.
This is when real hard work begins as it needs careful weeding, fertiliser application and then harvesting.
Hopefully, the NGO-GCN empowerment programme will help more women enjoy the fruits of their labour.