By Blair Mhone

The Invisible Victims

In the heart of Mzuzu City—a bustling urban centre filled with diverse communities striving to make a living, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and the first cases in Malawi April 2020, unleashed a wave of challenges that shook the very foundation of the city and the country.

One of the people facing the harsh consequences of the pandemic is Rhoda Singini, a 35-year-old single mother in Chiputula who has been struggling to raise her four kids and two other siblings due to a lack of necessities like food, soap and school supplies for her children. Singini has relied on small businesses and casual work to support her family.

Meanwhile, the government, to address the economic fallout of the pandemic, launched the COVID-19 urban cash intervention (CUCI) program, intending to supply relief and to cushion livelihoods of vulnerable and low-income households from the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rhoda Singini is struggling to make ends meet after COVID 19 effects.

The cash transfers targets those who primarily derive their livelihoods from the informal sector and the most vulnerable households.

According to the intervention, a vulnerable household is one of the households that should be top of the list in passing any key elimination questions employed by those enlisting beneficiaries as it meets all the necessary requirements. The three-month programme supported about 199 640 households in Zomba, Mzuzu, Blantyre and Lilongwe with a monthly pay-out of K35 000, beginning January to March 2021.

But little did the authorities know that the cash transfer initiative would inadvertently exclude one crucial group—vulnerable women like Rhoda Singini.

“I am struggling to raise my kids, especially to find enough food, school fees and other basic home items that one can find in a home. My children are going to school without eating anything. Starting from the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything stopped working normally. We are experiencing the downfall of small businesses, trying to work hard, but nothing is working as we planned,” says Singini.

She adds that despite knowing of the COVID-19 cash transfer program, if identified as one of the registered beneficiaries, her household’s livelihood would dramatically improve.

“I will be happy to be part of the beneficiaries receiving this money because I will start a small business to be a standalone person to help with my children’s school fees and other necessities, including food.

“My message to our leaders, community leaders, is to please carry our worries to the Government on the challenges we are facing to be part of the social cash transfer programs, which are unfair. We have seen that at times those who are well-to-do families are the ones who are offered top priorities in receiving money from the program,” bemoans Singini.

Another woman left out of the program is 42-year Falesi Nachiyenga, a widow who lives in Zolozolo. She challenges herself to meet top Government officials and ask them why she is not among the people receiving the Social Cash transfer money.

She believes taking care of 3 children and five grandchildren with no formal employment or source of income qualifies her to be part of the program, but for some reason, she is not.

“Our local leaders are very corrupt, and those at the receiving end are well-to-do people leaving those who cannot even buy a packet of sugar for their family. How I wish I could meet those top leaders to ask them why they are allowing these malpractices to happen to poor citizens,” she said.

Chiputula ward Councillor Hilwet Mkandawire in responding to the concerns of the women, accepted that the challenge is there and that, as a Councillor, he has tried several times but has yet to receive a proper response from the offices responsible.

Councillor Mkandawire (left) blames government for being powerless

“First, let me blame Government for not giving us power as Councilors. They went alone and made registration as they only gave us the duty to show them the ward boundaries. In the end, they registered people who were not eligible to be on the list of recipients; at first, they told us that only people whose businesses were affected due to COVID-19 were the ones to be registered.

“Still, it was not like they left out those who are supposed to receive and we do not know what procedure they were using,” said Mkandawire.

Meanwhile, our investigation in the city’s township where beneficiaries are being drawn has revealed that among the forgotten were single mothers, widows, and other disadvantaged women who had lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic.

These women had previously relied on informal employment or small-scale businesses to support their families. Unfortunately, the cash transfer project did not recognise their unique circumstances and overlooked their eligibility for assistance.

The Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) urban cash intervention (CUCI) program was started by the Government of Malawi in 2020 to help mitigate the adverse health and economic effects of COVID-19 on urban poor populations in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba, and Mzuzu. CUCI is Malawi’s first significant cash transfer program to focus on urban areas.

The Malawi government allocated funds to be disbursed among those in need, providing a lifeline for survival during these trying times. However, the project’s implementation fell short, leading to the unintended marginalisation of vulnerable women in Mzuzu City.

In response to accusations of unfairness, Mzuzu City Council Public Relations Officer MacDonald Gondwe said the selection criteria were through the standard criteria used to select beneficiaries under social cash transfer by the Ministry of Gender.

He said data collectors went to communities with a questionnaire, and the responses provided in the questionnaire determined the selection procedure. The households could be ranked depending on their scores and later selected for the program.

“Among other issues were to look at their vulnerability to Covid -19 and how the pandemic could have impacted their daily lives. The cash transfers were to cushion them from the worst impact of the pandemic. Among them was how one sustains their livelihood, disability, child-headed households, aged and any vulnerable Malawian,” said Gondwe.

Mzuzu City Council CEO Gomezgani Nyasulu overlooked abuse and misuse of COVID 19 funds contrary to government regulations

Gondwe added that another project currently being implemented after the CUCI project is part of the Lean Season Food Insecurity Response, which has two elements; Food, mainly maize, which was distributed in January and Cash transfers for two months.

“These two used the nationally agreed selection guidelines where we had three processes, validation of the names in the first CUCI database, data collection, which also involved community members and a list of presentations to the communities.

“The identification in the second cash transfers was done by Ward Civil Protection Committees (According to the guidelines), then the proposed names went through a questionnaire which was also used to select the final list. The questionnaire was to ascertain their vulnerability and affirm their stand,” added Gondwe.

On the reported complaints from some sectors of the community who believe selection and identification was at times unfair or underserving households are benefitting, Gondwe said,

“Yes, we have ever received such complaints, but it is difficult to come in as a Council. There were guidelines that the Council, in liaison with the Ministry of Gender, UNICEF and other partners used to ensure such errors shouldn’t happen. And in such cases, we could institute an investigation into the matters.”

He further stated that the council had no powers to remove any person duly selected by the system.

“So, we could take it up with our implementing partners who could act on such issues using legally acceptable means. However, we also noted that some claims were based on lies, ill will, jealousy and failure to understand the process for identification.