The demographic dividend has become a key focus of discussions in Malawi’s development. Malawi Parliamentarians have particularly shown leadership in transforming the country’s socioeconomic landscape by spearheading the formation of the Parliamentary Caucus on Population and Development. The Caucus, which is a voluntary and non-political undertaking by Members of Parliament (MPs), will contribute to addressing the country’s population and development challenges through advocacy and legislation. The Caucus, which was formed in 2016 was officially launched by the First Lady of Malawi, Her Excellency Dr. Gertrude Mutharika, on 27th April 2017 in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Ahead of the launch of the Caucus, experts on population and development from AFIDEP took the MPs through a session on the demographic dividend in order to aid their understanding on the linkages between various aspects of population dynamics and how these relate to the country’s development.
Malawi’s high population growth unsustainable
In her discussion on Malawi’s prospects for harnessing the demographic dividend, Prof. Nyovani Madise, Professor of Demography and Social Statistics at the University of Southampton and also the Vice Chair of the AFIDEP Board of Directors, noted that Malawi is experiencing unsustainably rapid population growth due to high fertility. Unfortunately, the rapid increase in population has negative impacts on crucial sectors for socio-economic development such as agriculture, health and education. The environmental stressors as a result of rising population also increases pressure on land and other natural resources and undermines food security in the country.
Investments in family planning are key in reducing fertility, thereby slowing down population growth. While Malawi in recent years has done well in investing in family planning (more so the use of modern contraceptives), more needs to be done in order to foster rapid decline in fertility and open the window of opportunity to maximise the demographic dividend the country can earn.
High levels of adolescent childbearing detrimental
Prof. Madise further noted that Malawi’s high rate of childbearing among adolescents is a major barrier to access to education and also a major contributor to poor health among adolescents. With such challenges, it is difficult for adolescents to transition into being productive adults contributing to their country’s development.
In order for Malawi to harness a demographic dividend, the country needs to reduce disparities in socioeconomic status by ensuring economic reforms and fostering job creation. Investments in family planning, public health, education, good governance and accountability are also needed. As noted by Prof. Madise, the demographic dividend is a window of opportunity that can be missed if the right investments are not made in a timely manner.
Parliamentarians have a duty
Speaking at the same forum, the Malawi Parliament Deputy Speaker, Hon. Esther Chilenje, noted that MPs are cognisant of the population and development challenges the country is facing and how these impede development. She particularly singled out depletion of natural resources and environmental degradation as key challenges. “We have to realise that the solutions to our problems lie with Malawians,” she noted. Hon. Chilenje went on to commend members of Caucus for their efforts to steer the country towards socioeconomic change despite their varied political affiliations. She urged MPs to take deliberations at the forum seriously in order to make Malawi a better place to live. “We can make the economy grow and make [Malawi] a great place to live for all its people,” she concluded.
Despite the prevailing challenges, the Malawi government is taking various measures to alleviate the country’s challenges. As noted by Mr. Peter Simbani, Director, Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, the government has taken measures to strengthen investments in education, with a particular focus on the girl child. Evidence shows that girls who are educated delay the initiation of childbearing, delay the decision to get married, and will have fewer children. Mr Simbani noted that the Malawi government has continued to invest in the Girls’ Hostel programme, an initiative that seeks to construct hostels for girls in secondary schools in order to minimise the risks encountered while walking to school or living in insecure self-boarding facilities. Although there are no clear statistics on the level of impact, Mr. Simbani noted that the programme has contributed significantly to the reduction in teenage pregnancies, and also improved education outcomes, as girls are able to stay in school consistently and concentrate on their studies.
Further, Mr. Simbani noted that the 1994 Free Primary Education Policy succeeded in increasing enrolment rates in primary schools, which were very low at the time. However, the high enrolment has not translated into high quality education. On the contrary, primary schools are now characterised by high pupil-teacher ratios with a high strain on resources such as school infrastructure including classrooms and learning materials such as books. This remains a challenge that is yet to be addressed.
Malawi’s high population growth rate was central to the discussions at the Caucus forum. Commenting on a question whether the fast growing population has taken the government by surprise, Mr. Simbani noted that throughout the years, the government of the day has been cognisant of the need to address the challenges of the fast growing population. However, in the face of limited resources, each government has struggled with meeting the population’s needs. He added that despite the challenges, the government has introduced various programmes to ensure equitable distribution of resources and steer inclusive growth. “The government is keen on addressing poverty at all levels,” he concluded.
Framing of messages is key
In order to steer the demographic dividend agenda forward and address Malawi’s prevailing population and development challenges, other stakeholders at the forum noted that the framing of family planning messages at the community level needs to be in a manner that stimulates the adoption of modern family planning methods. This will significantly contribute to reducing the population growth rate. For instance, community members need to understand the linkages between various population issues such as the impact of population growth on food security. This calls for clear and concise unpacking of evidence on population in order to support these messages. Further, as MPs conduct oversight on population and development in their various communities, they need to use evidence to monitor progress.