by Jay Gribble, vice president, International Programs
As the National Leaders Conference on Family Planning, Population, and Development opens with all protocols observed, it’s quite inspiring to hear the comments of leaders who have made opening remarks. Lilly Banda of USAID/Malawi’s Health team spoke of the importance of addressing unmet need for family planning—making modern family planning information and services available to women who want to avoid pregnancy—as a key strategy to achieving Malawi’s development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The high level of unmet need undermines achieving the MDGs. At the same time, slowing Malawi’s population growth and achieving sustainable levels of fertility will contribute to a higher quality of life for the people of Malawi. As such, family planning is an indispensable development issue, contributing to health and the economic development of Malawi. There is a role for all stakeholders in the process, for together—the public and private sectors, traditional and public officials, government and civil society—all have a vital role to play.
As USAID Mission Director Doug Arbuckle pointed out, this is the first-ever conference in Malawi for population and development, signaling that the Government of Malawi is identifying these issues as a priority for the development and well-being of the nation. Population growth remains a tremendous development challenge: In the 2008 census, Malawi’s population was 13 million; it is currently close to 15 million. With such rapid population growth, addressing the issue is not just a matter of good development policy, it is a matter of life and death. So critical is the importance of addressing Malawi’s population growth, that the challenge of population growth can doom all other development policies.
UNFPA Representative Athanase Nzokirishaka offered insights into Malawi’s population situation. To make progress in lowering population growth, all women need to have information about family planning so that they can make informed decisions about the timing and spacing of their children. But it’s not just for women; men must also be positive contributors to the uptake and use of family planning. When the nation achieves the goal of slowing population growth, it will be in a better position to educate children and young people, bring relief to its overcultivated land, slow environmental degradation, and make advances toward Malawi’s development goals and strategies and the MDGs.
A final speaker in the opening session was the Vice President of the Republic of Malawi and Minister of Health, Right Honorable Khumbo Kachali, who observed that there has been increased focus on improving the health of women around the world, but there has been a sense that family planning is a women’s issue. “No!” according the Vice President, “If family planning is about planning families, then it must also include men as part of a modern perspective. Women and men both need to be involved in family planning decisionmaking and use.”
And when Malawi makes progress in the use of family planning and effectively managing fertility, it will make progress toward achieving the MDGs and other health and development outcomes. Through family planning, Malawi can reduce maternal mortality, the number of unintended pregnancies, and unsafely performed abortions, and lower its total fertility rate. At the same time, through slowing population growth, it can better address food security, natural resource management, and educational opportunities. Family planning can improve the quality of life in Malawi, improving not only the health of its people, but contributing to the economic development, thereby affecting all people’s lives. Repositioning family planning as a key part of the development agenda makes sense. It’s time for all partners to be involved. And as the Vice President said, the Government of Malawi is committed to family planning methods.
So, the conference is open, comments by decisionmakers have been made, and the importance of addressing population growth has been made. I am optimistic that today and tomorrow will provide further evidence about what Malawi needs to do to move forward.