During the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Kenya last November, Minister of Health Jappi Mhango unveiled an ambitious 10-point plan, including the commitment to end child marriages by 2030 to making secondary education free. In this interview, our staff writer JAMES CHAVULA catches up with United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) country representative WON YOUNG HONG on what the ambitious commitments mean for Malawians.
How do you assess the commitments Malawi made at the ICPD?
It was an amazing momentum created by the international community working in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights. The issue is going to organise ourselves to assist government, the civil society and all actors in Malawi to focus on the implementation to turn the commitments into actions that are going to change lives of the people.
Malawi has made 10 commitments ranging from ending early marriage to increasing healthcare spending, including the sexual reproductive health (SRH) budget, to constitute 15 percent of the national budget by 2030. What are the commitments ambitious enough?
They are very bold commitments in my view. Even if there is a law, cultural practices still prevail. It means how government is going to plan those activities will determine whether we are going to meet those commitments. Also, we need to allocate resources for the activities related to those promises and build partnerships because not everything can be done by government alone. For me, the partnerships and partners are very important in the financing and implementation of the programmes. The civil society and even the private sector will be very critical to deliver the change that we want for the Malawi population. We need to work together.
A study released during ICPD25 shows that UNFPA needs about $264 billion to ensure no woman gets an unintended pregnancy. What will it take for Malawi to raise domestic funds for modern family planning methods and how are you going to work with them to close the gaps?
Especially family planning is a vital part of the expanded sexual and reproductive health services has to be recognised as a health issue not only for women, but also men. There is an increased demand for population dynamic creation that requires a holistic approach to family planning. So, it’s not just family planning through contraception, but the operational environment. It’s also about the social cultural environment and economic operating—everything that contributing to the population dynamic creation. Actually, we want to put population issues at the centre of the national development plan. We also want to create a further coalition with other critical sectors like the education system, the labour market, skills development, social and economic planning. We want to look at the population issue as a development issue centred on family planning as a human rights issue. Rights of women. Rights of the children. Rights of the family. Rights of the children. We want to make an appeal to the domestic and international community to invest in family planning because it is central to national development.
In 2010, UNFPA reported that about 50 percent of women married before their 18th birthday. In 2015, the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey showed that the rate of child marriages had dropped marginally to 47 percent. What will it take to increase the momentum to end child marriages by 2030 as government has pledged?
The law clearly says that even with the consent of a parent, it is illegal to marry someone aged below 18. Now we really have to discuss—all sections of our society, all sections of government, all traditional leaders and all influential people who allow these marriages to happen—what it means to implement the law. There is a role for parents, there is a role for traditional leaders, and there is a role for religious leaders who are approving these child marriages that are clearly outlawed in Malawi. We need to discuss honestly what it means to operationalise this law. Also we have to address the big issue: Who are accountable? At the family level, it is the parents. At community level, it is the traditional leaders. At the State level, who should be accountable when a large number of girls continue to get into marriage at a very young age while we have a law that prohibits this practice? So, government as well as Parliament has a role to play. All of us have to be accountable.
We left ICPD25 with hope that all those promises will be met by 2030. What does the future look like if Malawi really fulfills her ambitious promises (See the sidebar)?
If those promises are realised into action, few girls will be dropping out of school, more boys will have the chance to fulfill their dreams, the youth will be at the centre of every decision-body and the future looks bright. If the youth take the seats in every decision-making body, it means their burning issues will be part of national policies and priorities. Most importantly, both national and international investment coming into the country will benefit the country’s youthful population. Certainly, the future should be bright. However, the problem is that we say the youth are our future. In the context of Malawi, nearly 75 percent of the populations are the youth. So, they are leaders of today. So, they need immediate attention and immediate investment. We cannot ignore their needs.