Traveling to Africa, the continent of my birth, right after the U.S. elections results is particularly rewarding for me. Of course, there is palpable delight prevailing throughout the continent on the re-election of President Obama. Yet my excitement has more to do with the resounding victory for American women, and how this squares well with my two-week mission in Africa. I am here to talk about women health needs, including reproductive health and family planning, and how they matter for millions of Africans as they confront climate change and development challenges.
My gateway is through the “Warm Heart of Africa,” Malawi. This is one of the 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa categorized as a population and climate change “hotspot” because of its rapidly growing population, water scarcity and falling food production. Malawi’s population has grown from 6 million in 1966 to about 15 million now and the United Nations Population Division projects that it could more than triple to 50 million by 2050, and reach 129 million by 2100. This population growth is due to high and slowly declining fertility levels. The number of births per woman is currently 5.7. Though there is increasing demand for smaller families, about 26 percent of all married women who want to postpone or avoid pregnancy still lack modern contraception.
A few days ago, I was a keynote speaker at a conference bringing together more than 150 Africans to discuss how population and climate change trends inform development planning in Africa. The conference was organized by the Leadership in Environment and Development (LEAD). I was slotted to speak immediately after the opening remarks by Vice President Rt. Hon. Khumbo Hastings Kachali. Long before the Vice President arrived, the warm spirit was in the air. The stage was set by passionate women dancers, colorfully donned in the ruling party colors, who provided musical interludes at the opening ceremony. It was gratifying to hear the all the speakers in the ceremony, including Hon. Catherine Gotani Hara, Member of Parliament and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management, and Mr. Richard Dictus, United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative, stress the importance of incorporating population and family planning in policies and programs. Mr. Dictus referenced research conducted by Population Action International (PAI) in collaboration with the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) that examines population, climate change and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa. It was exhilarating to hear the Vice President himself emphasize the need for population, family planning, and reproductive health in climate change and development efforts in Malawi.
The strong political will and leadership at the highest levels of government to tackle population and climate change challenges heralds a bright future for Malawians. The fact is, however, the battle is far from won. Even with good policies and strong networks, you need more money better spent to support programs and projects, including meeting the needs of 58 million in Africa who lack the tools and information to control their family size, which will improve their lives and make them healthier and wealthier.
But the good news is that the drums are beating here in Malawi, and they are loud and clear. As I head to Nairobi for a similar presentation at a launch event of the Kenya country report of the PAI and AFIDEP study, I hope the sounds of the Malawi drums resonate in my mother country, and eventually reverberate throughout the continent.