“Wonder Women” of mass registration

Funmilayo Bissani repairing a camera at the Consolidation Centre of the national registration exercise.
Funmilayo Bissani repairing a camera at the Consolidation Centre of the national registration exercise.

Karl Bostic,  August 2017. The mass registration exercise in Malawi is gaining momentum to produce what will be a historic milestone for the country. By the end of the year, more than nine million people will be able to claim their legal identity as Malawians. The exercise is also a mirror that reflects the future for Malawi, through the expected benefits from the national ID card system, but also as the future promise of those Malawians now responsible for making it a success. And it is especially promising for those women working in the exercise who are becoming empowered.

At the heart of the operation are registration officers, supervisors in the field, and technicians, working to keep the bio-metric kits (BRK-kits) functioning. Many of these key functions are performed by women, who are not only thriving in their work but who also are helping to change attitudes towards gender in a patriarchal society. By the example of their work in the mass registration they are some of the “Wonder Women” of Malawi.

THE REGISTRATION OFFICERS – THE FACES OF MASS REGISTRATION

The more than 4000 registration officers and supervisors who have been trained to operate the 2000 bio-metric kits in the field are the faces of the mass registration, and so many of them are women. Besides their technical training, they have also learned the best practices of registering a person to capture their unique identity, from finger-print scanning, taking a photograph, and even to assisting those in need of help to fill out the registration forms for identification. On a daily basis, about 130,000 people are being registered by the hundreds of teams of officers at registration centres in selected districts for each phase.

The challenges facing the women registration officers are unique as they also reflect challenges facing women in Malawi in general. At the Chiwosa school in Chisopo outside of Lilongwe, Evenness Chunga describes how she counters sexism and manages impatient crowds, guided by her training on how to follow the rules.

“Sometimes it’s becoming more challenging for us to control the men in the line because they want to take advantage of us, thinking that we are less powerful than they are, but then as registration, as women, we know what our responsibilities are and then we don’t allow them to interfere. We tell them what our job requires and then, because they can’t fight that, we work like that. For example, when we are lining them up, the guys, the applicants, say, ‘what can you tell us? We want to register, you should start with us as men. You know, women are just… they don’t work. You need to start with us, and then the women can come’,”

When it’s necessary, Evenness knows how to take matters into her own hands without confrontation.

“When we see that they have reached an extent where we cannot control them, we close the doors to the classes, and let 20 people inside the class register. It doesn’t matter how hard they try to stop us from helping women or other people who are supposed to be considered first.”

These officers are tested daily, but they are a study in grace under pressure. For Dorica Mlongoti, 23, her persistence in finding a job helps explain her steely determination to follow the protocols of registration.

“I just finished school. I’ve been looking for a job for almost two years, searching through the Internet, everything. At the training, we were taught how to handle ourselves, to be responsible to everyone. And we’ve been doing just that. Handling them with honor, with respect. We always have two lines, a line for men, a line for women. And old women, we always consider them first. A pregnant woman, we always consider her first. Whether it’s a woman with a baby of two months old, or three days, we always consider them first, or a person who can’t speak.”

Registration officers such as Themba Mkandawire display a self-confidence that is only matched by their newly acquired skills. At 23, she is challenged by crowds, but she has already set the standard for processing at her centre, at the Kaume Primary School in Lilongwe.

“They say I’m too young, they say, “how can she be doing this?” And she smiles saying, “But I’m good. I process 120 people a day. I’m the fastest, because I’m familiar with the laptop.”

THE TECHNICIANS: FINE-TUNING AT WORK

While Themba may operate the BRK like a virtuoso, the BRK is still a suitcase of complex instruments, making it the workhorse of the mass registration. Each kit can store bio-metric data of more than 1000 people. Its key components, the finger-print scanner and camera, while sturdy, need regular maintenance. The wear and tear of registering as many as 130,000 people a day keeps technicians at the Consolidation Centre busy. Dozens of these crucial parts arrive each day for service and repair. In a corner workspace at the Consolidation Centre, 15 technicians restore those parts to full working strength. Two of them are women.

Funmilayo Bissani and Omega Namwera have become the unlikely stars of this team and as women they are re-setting attitudes towards gender. At 21, Funmilayo is one of the youngest workers at the Consolidation Centre, yet she is brimming with self-confidence and with optimism. 

“Sometimes when the cameras come here, they are completely damaged, but I manage to fix them, at least for a day. My boss can give me a challenge. I can manage 20 cameras per day, but it’s a hard day because the camera has fragile parts, so you have to handle them with care and make sure that you do not damage the other parts of the camera.”

Despite her youth, she ignores the jealousy of others and is focuses on her job and on completing her education. “Those guys are jealous of us. ‘Why are these girls here?’ It’s like that. I take that challenge, it’s nothing to me. Here at the warehouse, I’m the one of youngest persons. I want to continue this exercise because I’m doing my school in weekend classes on Saturdays and Sundays, so after graduation, I won’t have trouble getting a job.”

Omega is the other female member of the team with Funmilayo, and now they are best friends, working together every day. At 38, Omega is a mother of four. She only finished college last year and began looking for a job. She is now skilled in repairing finger-print scanners.

“The men respect us, but sometimes they look down [on us]. But now they see that we are doing better than them. I fix the finger print assembly, I fix them when they come in from the field. I find that they are broken, they are not working, the cords are not connected inside, so I open them, but there is no problem in fixing them.”

Like Funmilayo, Omega knows she is re-setting attitudes about gender. “I’m an example because I’m working here at the office like a man. Fixing finger-print assembly and seeing to it that it’s working 100 percent. I’m proud of it.”

THE SUPERVISORS: TROUBLE-SHOOTERS IN THE FIELD

Supervisors like 29-year old Chisomo Ouolokoss also shares this pride as she is among the many women who are doing this important work in the field. She is the first line of help for registration officers when it comes to trouble-shooting problems. With 20 registration officers under her wing, she has created a WhatsApp group to fight any challenges that occur.

As a supervisor, she also meets with local authorities, such as village chiefs, to smooth out differences on the ground. She brings her skills as a businesswoman in poultry farming into a male-dominated environment. At the Kamwala Registration Centre in Lilongwe, there was scarcely any turnout for registration because of local fears that the process was an invasion of privacy that could be used for ulterior motives. “My officers couldn’t work for two to three days until we resolved the issues by explaining to them the whole idea of this exercise,” she recounts.

She explains how she overcame the wariness of the local village chiefs. “It was a challenge. I’m young and I’m a lady so I was in the middle of older men, explaining to them this whole thing. Now I’m glad it all worked out, because at the end they had to understand this. The questions were like ‘how do we believe these cards will work on the things that you are talking about?’ I had to make them understand. I said they will help in the banks, since most people don’t have passports, they don’t have drivers’ licenses. I said that to get recognized as a Malawian, they need to have this.” Chisoma glows with pride when telling this story. “They talked to the people after this. So it was a success.”

She also considers it a success when she can be a role model to other women, who may lack confidence in improving their livelihoods. “In Salima, I came across several young girls who were married at a younger age, who were having babies. When I asked them, they said that they had dropped out of school at a certain point, at 18 or 19, and it wasn’t very nice to look at that. I was talking to some of them about going back to school.

“At one point I was registering an applicant and I came across her age. I asked if she was married and she said yes. She was 19. So, I asked, in a friendly way of course, about school, and she told me that she dropped out of school when she was about 16 because she had a baby then. I asked her what her plans are. She said ‘I want to do business.’  I said ‘what about school?’  She said ‘I cannot go back to school since I’m married.’ I said ‘no, it’s not too late, you can go back to school even though you’re married. You can become someone out of yourself.’”

Making “someone out of yourself” is the first step of empowerment that is now being felt by many women in the national mass registration exercise. And it’s being delivered as a message by the “Wonder Women” in the exercise, by their very presence. Women like Omega, who feels newly empowered, believes this is also the key to success for Malawi.

“I feel proud of it because women can make a difference in the world. They can do anything. What we need is encouragement and empowerment, but women can change the world. And women can improve Malawi, they can make changes. What we need is empowerment.”

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