The 27th of April 2017 was distinguished by a landmark event in the Malawi Parliament – the launch of the Caucus on Population and Development. The Caucus seeks to promote advocacy and legislative reforms aimed at tackling Malawi’s population and development challenges. The day-long event was attended by over 100 members of the Malawi Parliament. Other guests included representatives of development agencies, civil society and the media. The Caucus was officially launched by Her Excellency the First Lady of the Republic of Malawi, Dr. Gertrude Mutharika.
While giving her remarks, the First Lady noted that it is impressive that Members of Parliament (MPs) have taken the initiative to address Malawi’s population and development challenges. “The health committee cannot do everything alone,” she noted. As such, she noted that the Caucus provides an opportunity for the larger community in parliament to deliberate population and development issues in an inclusive manner.
A key win for MPs is that the First Lady is now their Patron. She is also the Chairlady of the Organization of African First Ladies against HIV and AIDS (OAFLA) and her role is seen to fit well with the focus of the Caucus. The Caucus seeks to deliberate issues on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), food security, poverty reduction, water and environment, and education. Of note is that parliamentary sub-committees focused on each of these issues shall be established within the Caucus.
Speaking of behalf of Parliamentarians, the Deputy Speaker Hon. Esther Chilenje, pointed that with the First Lady as Patron, MPs are hoping for greater resource allocation to population and development issues. She quoted the First Lady as having been instrumental in the allocation of a budget line for family planning in 2013 when she was an MP. Her experience in pushing the agenda of various population and development issues in the Malawi Parliament therefore makes her great choice for Patron. Hon. Chilenje also noted that as Patron, the First Lady will generate support and cooperation among Malawians and parliamentarians on population and development issues
Why the Caucus
Speaking at the launch, Hon. Juliana Lunguzi a Member of Parliament and co-chair of the Caucus pointed that formation of the Caucus will give MPs a good perspective on population and development issues so they can have an in-depth understanding of the needs of their communities. “MPs cannot be half-backed parliamentarians,” she said.
As described by Hon. Lunguzi, who is also the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Health, the Caucus gives the MPs better capacity to advocate for issues at the community level. MPs will also figure out how best to formulate legislation and communicate this to their communities.
The population growth challenge
Malawi’s population is currently estimated at 17 million. According to population experts, the rate at which the country’s population is growing is alarming. A common thread in the discussions was how this high population growth rate poses challenges to the development of Malawi. For instance, the First Lady noted that the high population growth rate is putting a major strain on the environment, natural resources as well as financial services. “We need to deal with population growth otherwise our country will lose the resources that nourish the existence of the people of Malawi,” she said.
The opportunity for transformation
However, despite the prevailing challenges, Dr. Eliya Zulu, the Executive Director, AFIDEP, pointed that Malawi stands a great chance to harness a demographic dividend. However, due to high fertility, the country’s population is dominated by children and youth. In order for Malawi to harness a demographic dividend, the government needs to invest in ensuring accessibility to family planning to all who need to use it so as to reduce fertility rates. Further, investments in public health are needed in order to promote child survival and reduce death rates. “If the population shifts from one dominated by children and youth to one that has more workers, this can accelerate economic growth,” said Dr. Zulu. Keeping girls in school and promoting the quality of education should then accompany these investments.
Dr. Zulu noted that Malawi is at a great advantage as the President H.E. Peter Mutharika is a demographic dividend champion and has been instrumental in driving advocacy on the demographic dividend among African leaders. For instance, President Mutharika led advocacy to the African Union (AU) to adopt the demographic dividend as the theme of the 2017 AU Summit. “The President and First lady have shown great leadership in promoting the demographic dividend agenda in Africa,” he said.
Seeing that the mandate of the Caucus cuts across issues that are pertinent in the achievement of the demographic dividend in Malawi, Dr. Zulu pledged that AFIDEP shall be committed to ensuring availability of evidence so that the leadership the Caucus has adopted translates into change at the community level.