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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Family Planning in Malawi, Africa

Air Date: Week of

In the small African country of Malawi, women are just beginning to successfully implement family planning. Aida Opuku-Mensah spoke with some women, and men there, and found that they are experiencing advantages to contraception in a culture without a precedent for cooperative birth control.


NUNLEY: The continent with the fastest-growing population is Africa. And a tiny sliver of land between Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique, called Malawi, recently brought down its growth rate from one of the highest in Africa. But its population is still growing faster than its ability to provide for itself. Reporter Aida Opuku-Mensah recently traveled to Malawi, and what she found was low contraceptive use, high illiteracy, and a traditional culture which puts nearly all control over reproduction in the hands of men. She files this report.

(Women singing)

OPUKU-MENSAH: Singing from the women of Insanjay in southern Malawi. And as they sing, the fact remains that the rural woman in Malawi, as in most parts of Africa, is a beast of burden. They are the carriers of water, hewers of wood, farm hands, mothers, wives, all rolled into one.

KAVINYA: Right from the girl child, they are bidden with household chores. The girls together with their mothers walk long distances to fetch firewood, to fetch water, and they take care of the too many children whom they have.

OPUKU-MENSAH: That was Agnes Kavinya, Coordinator of the National Family Welfare Council of Malawi, voicing the difficult life of rural women. One problem they face is rampant and frequent pregnancies.

KAVINYA: You know, most of these people have more than 5 children in every family. And these girl children and women are having terrible health conditions. Their bodies are very overburdened and they feel very helpless. The husband does not allow them to go ahead to plan their families or to space their children, because they do not understand them. So they are crying out for help from all sides.

OPUKU-MENSAH: And the more children they produce, the more pressure this has on the environment. As one of Africa's least developed countries, Malawi's population is growing faster than available resources. Robert Ingayae, Information Director of the Malawi Population and Environment Program, explains further.

NGAIYAYE: The population has been growing, using the same land resources which are developed. And because of this we have been having a lot of land shortages, which are so " anybody can just see as you travel along the Malawian roads.

OPUKU-MENSAH: And as you mean that this person has 4 children and maybe in 5 years time the children increase to 8. That means that he still has the same piece of land on which to feed these 8 children with. Is that what you're trying to say?

NGAIYAYE: That's right. So we have a big problem

OPUKU-MENSAH: Whether there's a big problem or not, contraceptives and birth control methods are still alien in rural societies. Traditional beliefs are such that children are seen as insurance and extra labor. And although this attitude is slowly changing, old habits die hard. Women don't have a choice in their reproductive health. However, John, a family man from the village of Insanjay, welcomes the use of contraceptives. John already has 7 children with his first wife. And although contraceptives have helped his second wife, it seems he has also benefited.

JOHN: (Speaks in native language)
TRANSLATOR: I think it's been very successful, in the sense that I'm going to be loyal and stick to my partner. Without that, it means moving around and then possibly contracting the AIDS disease. So birth control is pulling the family together. And I can still be able to enjoy a sexual life without going out to accommodate for the wife, who has to nurse the baby. Why else waiting? For it is known as the abstinence period. So to me, it has been very helpful.

OPUKU-MENSAH: Maria, John's second wife, also sees the use of family planning methods in a different light. Merely a girl-child herself, Maria is an example of the health dangers early marriages can cause. But with sound advice from family planning officials, she now has 2 young children.

MARIA: (Speaks in native language)
TRANSLATOR: The reason why I had to start family planning is that I was suffering from miscarriages. I lost almost every child and now I have 2. After following family planning methods, the children are now surviving.

OPUKU-MENSAH: Can men like John be considered progressive? At least his use of contraceptives is a step forward. Sadly, his wife has no say in the matter. And clearly, he alone makes the decisions in the home. And that is because the contraceptives serves his interests more than anything else. Family planning practitioners and policy makers have to recognize the social realities facing women. So how can women take control of their reproductive lives? Agnes Kavinya has some suggestions.

KAVINYA: What the government needs is to develop policies which will reinforce the information, education, and communication activities to target mainly the men and the secondary, the women and the girl child. The government has to also develop education policies which will make more women become literate. And finally, the government has to bring out very, very sound economic policies which will improve the economic status of women, because that's one of the things that is the, you know, hindering women.

(Women speaking in a group)

NUNLEY: That report was prepared by Aida Opuku-Mensah, with the assistance of Down to Earth and the Panos Institute.



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