Educating Girls: The Promise of Malawi

Posted on January 15, 2013, by Courtney E. Martin

Who do you imagine when you hear that women are dying in childbirth? Probably a woman of about 27 years old — the average age of new motherhood in the U.S.

In fact, of the 675 out of 100,000 women who die in childbirth in Malawi each year most have not even reached their 20th birthdays. They likely look like you, your daughters, your sisters — but they have lost their adult lives before they even began.

Teen girls are at a far greater risk for maternal mortality for a number of reasons. They often keep their pregnancies secret out of shame and fear, and thus don’t get the kind of prenatal medical attention that helps prevent problems later on. Additionally, those who live deep in the country (over 80 percent of Malawi’s population is considered rural) often don’t get to medical clinics in time to get help.

And this leads us to the question: Why do teenage girls in Malawi, and countries like it, get pregnant at such high rates? In part it is because so few of them have access to secondary education (a.k.a. high school), which is not free in Malawi.

As The Girl Effect, 10x10 and so many girls and women advocates have emphasized over the past decade, educating a girl is the best investment to reverse almost every “wicked problem” our world faces. In this case, educate a girl, and she is less likely to get pregnant at a young age and less likely to suffer from a pregnancy complication, like fistula, or even death.

She is also more likely to learn about and access contraception, which means she is more likely to have a smaller family (the current average is 5.7 children per mother in Malawi presently), which means she is putting less pressure on the already overstressed climate and natural resources.

Maternal mortality is linked to girls’ education is linked to access to contraception is linked to climate change… As John Muir has said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is tied to everything else in the universe."

The good news is that Malawi is currently being led by Joyce Banda, the second woman to rule an African nation after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Banda has created a Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood, which aims to reduce the maternal mortality rate from 165 per 100,000 women to 115 by 2015. Her work is supported by the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health led by former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

Mary Robinson and Joyce Banda. Photo credit: John Cary.
Mary Robinson and Joyce Banda. Photo credit: John Cary.


Keep an eye on this extraordinary leader and this special country. It could become a model for the rest of Africa for how to reduce maternal mortality, empower girls and heal the environment.  

 Author and strategist Courtney E. Martin, along with The Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, visited President Joyce Banda and her cabinet for an official consultation on their work around family planning and safe motherhood.