Lilongwe — The sight of women behind wheels is now so common. But of the one behind the grouser pad of an excavator is so rare and at the same time fascinating.
The story of 41-year-old Priscilla Mwapasa represents the significant strides Malawi is making in breaking gender barriers through women empowerment in various social and economic activities.
For a society so conservative in assigning gender roles that usually elevate men at the expense of women in every aspect, it has always been difficult for women to break into the so-called male dominated jobs.
For instance, take the operation of heavy machinery, driving heavy goods trucks, tippers or even passenger buses. These works have always been considered so demanding and ideal for men only.
But over the years, that assertion has turned out to be faulty at times. Women have demonstrated that they are equally up to any task that men can do. Mwapasa is the latest example.
The woman is excelling in a territory that has only known the hand of man for so many years.
Mwapasa works for Mota Engil Engenharia, the contractor that is upgrading the dual carriage way of Area 49-Area18-Parliament round about road.
She is one of the workers who operates an excavator on the project site. Her motivation to venture into a male dominated job can be traced to the time she was growing up as a young girl.
"I was always encouraged when I saw men operating heavy machines. Since then, I had always wanted to do the same," says Mwapasa, a former student at Blantyre Primary and Chiradzulu Secondary Schools.
Growing up in a family of two boys and four girls, Mwapasa had no idea that she would end up operating such machinery.
Perhaps her choice of friends when growing up could be one factor that drove her to this field. She recalled that as a young girl, she hung around boys very often than she did with fellow girls.
Her late father never approved of her conduct of being around boys most times.
"I remember one day, he got so furious. But I never changed. May be this was the beginning of my journey to this current work," Mwapasa says.
The journey into her present job began when she joined a transporting company called Unitrans as a driver in Nchalo, Chikwawa.
While working for this company, an opportunity arose in 2004 for women employees who were interested to go to South Africa for a training in operating heavy machinery.
Mwapasa never let this opportunity pass and she turned out to be one of the best performers as an excavator operator. Her ambition continued to grow with time.
"Later, I ventured into other heavy machinery including Drum Roller and Tippers," says Mwapasa, a resident in Area 25 Sector 7 in Lilongwe.
Now she is an experienced person in her job and she enjoy it very much. Her day starts as early as 5 am.
"When I wake up in the morning, I pray and then do all household chores, including making packed lunch for my son," says Mwapasa, a single mother to nine-year-old Brian.
At work, her schedule is always tight. On a busy day, she can fill 16 tippers with loads of soil.
Operating heavy machinery such as the excavator is not an easy task. But Mwapasa seems to have mastered it well.
Her superiors are always pleased with her work rate.
"She does a good job, even better than most of her co-workers who are men," says Jack Chirwa, drainage foreman for Mota Engil at the construction sites.
He adds that Mwapasa's output is no different to that by men and she demonstrates that women have the potential to do all jobs that are often regarded as for men only.
Elimination of gender inequality and discrimination in employment and economic opportunities is what independent Malawi and the rest of the world need for prosperity.
A recent report by the World Bank titled Women, Business and the Law 2018 finds that 19 countries around the world legally restrict women from working in some sectors such as transport and construction in the same way as men.
"No economy can grow to its full potential unless both women and men participate fully," reads part of the report, while calling for a reform to laws that restrict women's employment in certain jobs in some countries.
In Malawi, some enabling legal frameworks are already in place including the Gender Equality Act and government is working hard to ensure that these statutes are implemented.
Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Lucy Bandazi says government is working hard in promoting the integration of gender especially in the public service sector.
"There is enhancement of capacity in gender integration through training of public officers at all levels," says Bandazi.
She further says that the working conditions of women in the public sector remain enabling as they can take three months paid maternity leave.
Bandazi calls on both public and private employers to uphold and promote gender equality in their workplaces.
"The country needs to realize its full potential through maximum use of its human resource irrespective of gender," she says.
Giving opportunities to all people including women such as Mwapasa is the only way Malawi can move forward towards prosperity in all aspects of development.
For Priscilla Mwapasa, the dream is still on with a vision that has a positive reflection in motivating fellow women.
"I want to become a foreman or an instructor and continue being a role model to women and young girls. We need to do away with the fear of the so called male dominated jobs," Mwapasa says.