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The Girl with a Wrench

In most rural communities of Malawi, the idea of a woman studying a construction-related vocational trade like plumbing, is heavily frowned upon. Parents discourage their daughters from being involved in such courses and many people are offended by the presence of a girl wearing a work suit. It is considered a taboo. The reason is simple; the cultural belief in most villages is that construction courses belong to males and women belong in the kitchen.

19-year-old Ethel is one of the girls who found herself in that scenario when she decided to enrol for a plumbing course in our vocational training programme. When Ethel broke the news to her parents, they were not pleased. Her father and mother criticized the idea and tried to dissuade Ethel from pursuing the decision.

“My father advised me against the idea, saying that plumbing needs strong people and that girls are not strong enough to handle the course. He said I should leave it to the men”, Ethel said, adding that it took a lot of convincing to finally persuade her parents to concede and let her study plumbing. That was in July 2018. Little did Ethel’s parents realize that their daughter had set foot on a path that would cause a surprising chain reaction.

After 6 months of intensive training, Ethel completed her course and her journey as the first female plumber in her community had kicked off. Just a month after finishing the course, Ethel found a temporary job as a plumber at the District hospital in her location. At first, Ethel was intimidated by the job and the intimidation was made worse because, since she was the only female plumber there, her workmates underestimated her. Their mentality changed, however, when they saw the skills that Ethel showcased at work.

“Soon everyone started admiring me and they began trusting me with complex tasks,” Ethel explained. This, she said, boosted her confidence. Most of the work that she does involves maintaining and fixing blockages in the sewer system, blocked toilets, pipes and taps. Ethel believes her work at the hospital is very important and that motivates her to work to the best of her abilities. Hospitals, she explained, rely heavily on water and without plumbers to maintain the water system, hospitals can become a very dangerous place for everyone. Ethel’s job as a plumber is to ensure safe drinking water and proper sanitation at the health facility.

Outside the hospital, the news that there was a skilled female plumber caused a sensation in her community. It did not take long for Ethel to start getting hired for her plumbing services by people within and outside her village. She would get hired to fix broken taps, install new taps, fix pipes and others.

“Just recently, I have been hired by someone who is building a new house and wants me to oversee and install all the taps, pipes and geysers in the house,” she beamed.

Slowly, Ethel is making extra income and is using that to improve her social conditions. Her parents, who ironically attempted to discourage her from doing plumbing, are benefiting from her job too because she is using part of the earned cash to support the household. She is even helping them to put her siblings through school.

She has also become some sort of a community celebrity to fellow girls who are now looking up to her as a role model. Many of the girls in Ethel’s village are either married or are out of school and staying idle. Those who are married depend on their husbands for support and seeing a young woman working and earning pay is a big inspiration to them. Ethel is keen to break the cycle of dependence that is prevalent among women in the village.

“Gone are the days when women looked up to the man for support. Things are rapidly changing and girls have to ensure that they can stand on their own even without a man. It is time to rise up and confidently say whatever a man can do, I can do”, she declared.

That is exactly what we want to accomplish through our vocational training programme – to train a skilled female workforce and help women to provide for themselves.