After serving the United Nations for 17 years Dan Odallo, the current UNFPA Malawi Country Representative will draw a curtain on his UN career this year. In this interview, he shares his highs and lows of his diplomatic journey with our reporter FATSANI GUNYA. Excerpts:
What was your first impression of Malawi when you first learnt you would be coming to head the agency here?
I was very excited. I knew that Malawi’s health programme has strong emphasis on ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive [SRHR] which is a central theme to UNFPA. With this in mind, I anticipated that my work would be exciting because of my passion with maternal health.
We understand you were serving in Eritrea before you took up the job here in 2016. How do you compare the two countries in terms of their respective response to SRH messages your agency propagates worldwide?
I think Eritrea and Malawi are pretty much the same because both have a very strong policy support for SRHR with special focus on adolescent health. Some difference exists though especially in the prevalence of female genital mutilation [FMG] as well as their small population compared to that of Malawi. But overall, many of the health challenges remain the same. I’m glad that in both countries the recognition of youth as the engine of growth is strong and so I’m sure policy will move in the same direction and ensure investment in young people is done.
What would you say is Malawi’s greatest challenge as far as sexual and reproduction health is concerned?
Personally, I think adolescent fertility rate is a big challenge in Malawi currently at 136/1000, at it continues to drive population growth. Many young people in Malawian continue to give birth before they are mature and this is a big contributor to poor health and the rapid population growth in Malawi. In addition, there is still a large percentage of women who fail to access contraceptives and end up having children they did not intend to have. Therefore, access to family planning remains a challenge. Expanding family planning options for women is the most important thing we can do to mitigate the impact of too many births on the health and welfare of the women of Malawi.
By empowering women and girls to make their own decisions about the timing and spacing of pregnancies, we open an important pathway towards their economic security and independence, as well as the realisation of all the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. I also feel that the continued threat of HIV among young people remains a challenge because many young Malawians, especially girls are getting infected with HIV. This is a threat to the realisation of the demographic dividend as well because of the heavy dependency burden at family level.
How would you rate the organisation in the period you have headed the agency in the country?
Overall, we have done quite well in supporting Government policies on safe motherhood, gender equity, prevention of gender based violence and generation of data for evidence-based planning. We acknowledge the demand is huge out there and the issues to address are widespread and multifaceted, but with our technical and financial ability, we have managed to achieve significant results in many of the areas of concern together with Government.
What are the outstanding issues and what do you propose still needs to be done to improve the situation?
Well, there are quite many, but we must aim at a Malawi where no one is left behind. To get there, we must fight poverty in all its manifestations. In the area of sexual and reproductive rights, we must end unmet need for family planning; end preventable maternal deaths; and end gender-based violence and harmful practices, including child marriages. In addition, our strength in collecting and analysing population data must continue to inform everything we do and will ensure that everyone is accounted for in the pursuit of these three ambitious aims and of global goals for sustainable development. That’s why in UNFPA we say ‘Everyone Counts’.
Did you find the policy landscape in the country helpful, like did you find enough political will to help save lives through the SRH sector?
Yes, the policy and legal landscape in Malawi is very conducive as regards the work of UNFPA. For example, the constitutional amendment to outlaw child marriages and the overall policies and guidelines on gender equity and women empowerment as well as policies and programmes in investing in young people are fundamental to creating a better country for women, girls and young people. Other policies regarding food, health, rural development all contribute to and complement each other for overall national development. That said I think the implementation of these polices and holding duty bearers accountable for implementation is important. We should not be policy rich and implementation poor.
What are your thoughts on the role of traditional leaders in promoting SRH?
Not only in Malawi are traditional leaders’ custodians of the moral fibre of the society. In many African countries, they also have a very critical role in translating and supporting policies that aim at creating a better society for their people. Therefore, in the universal access to sexual and reproductive health programmes, traditional leaders remain the bedrock in changing attitudes, harmful cultural practices and promoting access and utilisation of the services. I applaud Senior Chief Kachindamoto and all the other chiefs who have done us proud in ending child marriages.
I think I deserve a rest and reflect on what I have done in my 17 years career with the UN. However, my passion in adolescent health remains strong and I will continue engaging with the young people. The future of Africa is with the current young people and so if we have hope for the future, then I must say, the future is already with us.
And finally, what memories of Malawi do you leave with?
I have been impressed with the spirit of hard work of Malawians with a lot of potential that can be harnessed to spur development.