Traditional Practices Study in Malawi

A better understanding of deeply rooted cultural practices using tools from behavioral economics? What sounds like a recipe for clash of cultures has the potential to generate new insights that remained undiscovered. After months of designing, preparing, and piloting survey instruments, as well as training more than a hundred enumerators that were familiar with the local context, the survey on Traditional Practices in Malawi was finally conducted nationwide between July and August 2018. The survey was jointly implemented by the Center for Child Well-being and Development at the University of Zurich (CCWD), the National Statistical Office of Malawi (NSO), the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi (CSR), and United Nations Children’s Fund Malawi (UNICEF). Four different organizations working on the same research project could be a difficult endeavor. However, when trying to learn about secretive – and potentially harmful – traditional practices, four parties pulling the same strings is just about the right number. Diverse skill-sets mean exploiting complementarities and these eventually turned out to be key to the success of this nation-wide project.

The purpose of the study is to provide prevalence measures of some traditional practices in Malawi as well as revealing decision makers and driving forces behind such practices. The main focus is on early marriage and initiation rituals, this is, diverse rites of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. This survey is the first of its kind to study these practices in such detail, based on a nationally representative sample in Malawi. So far, the study has generated some first key findings. Concerning child marriage, the study documents that still almost 50% of girls get married all over the country before they reach the age of 18. Poverty is one of the most commonly reported reasons to carry out a child marriage. When marriage does not result directly from poverty, girls themselves—besides family members—are considered to be heavily involved in these marriage decisions.

Furthermore, initiation rituals are more regionally concentrated than child marriage. These diverse cultural practices are particularly prevalent in the south of the country, where the majority of children are thought to participate. Given that these practices are manifold, support varies by type. The most widely recognized positive aspects about initiation rituals involve educational aspects, in particular about health and hygiene, and leaning about social norms. However, a third of the population in the southern region of Malawi does not find any positive aspects in initiation rituals. Potentially harmful parts of initiation rituals involve different types of female genital mutilation and sexual instruction, sometimes involving forced sexual intercourse and exposing children to sexually transmitted diseases. Similar as for child marriage, close family members are dominating decision makers regarding participating in initiation rituals. Moreover, village elders play a key role in some regions. Strikingly, children themselves are thought to be involved much less in decisions about participation in initiation rituals, than in (early) marriage decisions.

The rich data set allows for many more analyses, especially concerning behavioral mechanisms that lay behind these traditional practices. The first look into these mechanisms looks promising and could change the way we think about harmful practices, in particular about the transmission of cultural norms. So, stay tuned for future updates!

By Simon Hänni

Date: November 2018