With two hands gripping the steering wheel and the right turn signal flashing, 21-year-old Vanessa Nsona’s concentration does not waver when a minibus caller passing by her driver seat window lets out a shrill catcall – she is about to complete her third driving lesson and she’s part of an increasing number of Malawian women who are doing so.
According to Precious Kumbatila, the director of Blantyre’s Apule Driving School, female students in Malawi have been enrolling at increasingly higher numbers over recent years.
“When we opened in 2003, most of our students were male,” said Kumbatila. “Very few women came in.
“It was in 2004 when we had the second government that women started learning to drive,” he said. “At that time there were a lot of vehicles coming into the country; a lot of families were buying cars, and as a result, men started wanting their wives and their girl children to learn how to drive.”
Although Kumbatila said the poorly performing economy adversely affected enrolment numbers for both male and female students in 2011, he added that overall, the gender gap is narrowing. In 2008, 163 female students registered for driving lessons at Apule compared to 301 male students. In 2011, 190 female students registered for lessons compared to 282 male students.
For Nelly Kalunga, a single mother working full-time and currently taking driving lessons at Apule, learning to drive is a “privilege” and will mean a new skill set, new opportunities and economic empowerment.
“Nowadays, women are given chances to do what men do,” Kalunga said. “I decided to start driving because I want to be like the men who are driving.
“If I have a driving license, that means I can do any work that men can do, I’ll have better chances of winning other jobs,” she said. “Myself, I want try to be like the men who work in peacekeeping.”
Kalunga said the jobs that she will be qualified for once she learns how to drive are higher paying and that “the more you learn, the more you can get good things.”
“We used to think that driving was only for men and not for women, but nowadays we’ve seen that even women can drive,” she said. “I think we can be 50/50 with men if most women can drive.”
However, according to Kumbatila, still “very few women can come and pay for lessons on their own” like Kalunga.
At Apule, registration for the 40 required driving lessons costs MK45,000 (CAD180). With the additional costs of the MK4,000 (CAD16) provisionary license, booking a road test for MK4,000 and MK8,000 (CAD32) for the full license if you pass, learning to drive costs over MK60,000 (CAD240) in total.
“It’s the men that pay for the women,” said Kumbatila. “Either their husbands, their boyfriends or workmates. They are trying to push the women to learn how to drive so that they can do their chores on their own.”
Nancy Nyirende is one such woman. A housewife and stay-at-home mother, Nyirende began taking driving lessons at Apule in March after her husband, who has been driving since 2001, decided to register her and pay for her.
“We have two cars now so he wanted me to escort my sons to school,” said Nyirende, adding that none of her female friends drive “because they are poor.”
Despite these roadblocks to closing the gender gap between male and female drivers, Kumbatila said he believes the slowly but surely increasing number of female drivers is steering Malawi in the right direction.
“It is imperative that women drive because driving lifts people’s lives,” he said. “In my mother’s day she was just at home for us, cooking at home. But nowadays [women] can have opportunities. If a woman can improve herself by learning to drive she can get the same kind of opportunities as men. If more women drive, it will empower this country.”
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), Malawi was ranked 60 out of 102 countries in the 2009 SIGI and ranked 38 out of 86 in the 2012 SIGI.
In 2011, the Human Development Index for Malawi was 0.400, placing the country at 171 out of 187 countries. For the Gender Inequality Index Malawi received a score of 0.594, placing the country at 120 out of 146 countries with data. Also in 2011, the World Economic Forum ranked Malawi 65 out of 135 countries in its 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, with a score of 0.6850 where 0 represents inequality and 1 represents equality.