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Planning a Family, Transforming a Nation

January 17, 2013

Fresh off of Melinda Gates’ own trip to Malawi, the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, led by former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, also visited President Joyce Banda and her cabinet for an official consultation on their work around family planning and safe motherhood. Author and strategist Courtney E. Martin was along for the ride and offers this guest post on what she witnessed on the ground.

It’s a special moment to be a woman in Malawi.

That might sound unintuitive, given that it is a country known for being among the worst in the world, and the second worst in Africa, on maternal mortality. But to only focus on what has and continues to go wrong there is to miss one of the most exciting stories unfolding on the continent of Africa in our time. 

President Joyce Banda came into office in April of last year after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, passed away. Banda—whose roots are deep in the women’s movement—joins her friend, Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the second female head of state in Africa. Many believe that Banda and Sirleaf are twin symbols of a new day for women in Africa—one where their rights will be protected more ardently and their agency strengthened.

 In order to overcome traditional taboos about discussing contraception President Banda is sensitizing tribal embrace family planning.

Indeed, when I spoke to women in a rural district in central Malawi, the majority of them expressed a very intimate excitement about her leadership. Mary Kandiyesa, a nurse and community coordinator, told me that she felt stronger in her personal sphere having President Banda (who the locals call “JB”) occupying the highest office in the land. “I tell the men, ‘We are ruling you. We are really empowered,’” with a sly smile on her face.

Kandiyesa is one link in a long, strengthening chain of community health workers who are giving women information and access to family planning far and wide under President Banda’s re-energized Ministry of Health. The presidential palace and its spokespeople mince no words about the importance of lowering the birth rate in Malawi (presently 5.7 kids per family, on average), in order to empower women, strengthen the economy, and protect the environment from the stresses of a booming population. Stubbornly high levels of fertility have remained unchanged since 2004.

In order to overcome traditional taboos about discussing contraception and shift attitudes about the pride historically associated with having large families, President Banda is sensitizing tribal chiefs—essentially, the key influencers in Malawian society—to embrace family planning. The chiefs—men and women, who inherit their esteemed office through blood lines—are increasingly encouraging their constituents, particularly the men, to measure wealth by how well a smaller number of children are taken care of, not how many children a family can produce.

The hearts-and-minds campaign, coupled with an expanded community health workforce—akin to that which has proven so successful in Ethiopia and Rwanda—has already proven fruitful. Use of modern contraception increased in Malawi from 12.5 percent in 1992 to 42 percent in 2010. Now that the political will is solidly present in the grassroots, feminist leadership of President Banda, there’s no telling what the next 15 months of her tenure might bring for the women of Malawi.

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