George Kalungwe | October 17, 2022
Jessica Mandanda is a youth rights activist from Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. But she didn’t become an activist by choice—circumstances forced her. When she was 17 years old, Ms. Mandanda got pregnant and gave birth to her first child.
She says, “I was in college when I got pregnant and I had to withdraw for two semesters. I faced discrimination from peers and lecturers who regarded me as promiscuous.”
Ms. Mandanda says it’s very isolating to be pregnant as a teenager. She recalls: “I received a lot of prejudice and judgement from people. Sometimes, I failed to go to class because a lot of people were very judgmental. Ultimately, I just ended up living in isolation.”
She says: “But I am glad that I managed to fight the stigma and returned to school. My family was very supportive and this helped me to return to school and finish my education after giving birth … that is why today I am championing sexual and reproductive health rights in my country.”
Ms. Mandanda had little information about contraception when she got pregnant, and didn’t know she had the right to access sexual and reproductive health services.
She says: “Because of the experience I had when I was young, I now have a passion for raising awareness about the rights to sexual and reproductive health [services] among teenagers to help them avoid falling into the same trap.”
Modetsa Kasawala is a nurse and midwife at Family Planning Association of Malawi. She says that, apart from their lack of information on contraceptive methods, stigma related to religious, social, and cultural beliefs also prevents teenagers from using sexual and reproductive health services.
She says: “Most adolescents are afraid to use contraceptives because, when they use contraceptives they are considered as promiscuous, or that they are indulging in sex day in and day out. But that is not the case.”
Simeon Thodi is the communications officer at Banja la Mtsogolo, a local family planning organization. He says there are many myths and misconceptions about contraception that prevent teenagers from accessing sexual and reproductive health services.
Mr. Thodi explains: “Some think [contraception] is a western ploy being pushed by white people to wipe out the African race, which is not true. Others say that if you use contraception, you will not conceive in future. [Again,] that’s not true.”
He adds that the notion that contraception makes people sick is also false, explaining, “Contraception is given to prevent [unwanted] pregnancy … or diseases like sexually transmitted infections.”
Mary Mlombe Phiri is the Director of Family Planning responsible for youth in the Malawi Ministry of Health. She says that, while contraceptives are available in Malawi, many people, especially teenagers, are not using contraception methods.
Ms. Phiri adds: “The consequences for not using contraceptives are so many, such as maternal death and school dropout. The other factor that prevents women from accessing family planning methods is the behaviour of men who discourage their spouses and, in some cases, engage in domestic violence such as physically removing the contraceptive implant from the women or stop them from taking their pills.”
Ms. Mandanda is employed now, and working hard to ensure that more girls avoid becoming pregnant while in school or before they reach childbearing age.
She says: “Some girls end up getting married at a very tender age, and some are kicked out of their homes, which is very devastating as they do not have access to education, safety, and security. I am advising young people to go to the hospitals and the clinics to access sexual and reproductive health services.”
This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada as part of The Innovations in Health, Rights and Development, or iHEARD, project. The project is led by a consortium of: CODE, Farm Radio International, and MSI Reproductive Choices and implemented in Malawi by FAWEMA, Farm Radio Trust, Women and Children First UK and Maikhanda Trust, Girl Effect/ZATHU, Viamo and Banja La Mtsogolo.