Field Report: Harmful Traditional Practices in Malawi

Field re­port

May 2018: Read Dario Meili’s Field Report from Malawi.

The team (from left): Math­ews, Meza, my­self, Atu­pele, Anafi, and Leah

As an econ stu­dent cur­rent­ly writ­ing my mas­ter the­sis at the Cen­ter for Child Well-be­ing & De­vel­op­ment (CCWD), I had the unique chance to spend three fas­ci­nat­ing months in Malawi work­ing as a re­search as­sis­tant. Apart from work­ing with UNICEF Malawi’s Plan­ning, Mon­i­tor­ing & Eval­u­a­tion Sec­tion in Li­long­we, the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, I also had the task to co­or­di­nate com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween CCWD and the UNICEF sec­tions we are col­lab­o­rat­ing with. On top, I ex­e­cut­ed few pi­lot stud­ies for two of the projects that we are run­ning in Malawi.

One of the two stud­ies is about mea­sur­ing the preva­lence of harm­ful tra­di­tion­al prac­tices like ear­ly child mar­riage and ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als con­tain­ing sex­u­al prac­tices. While the for­mer is­sue was al­ready the sub­ject of re­search projects (e.g. Corno and Voe­na, 2015; Corno, Hilde­brandt and Voe­na, 2016), the lat­ter only re­cent­ly came into the me­dia’s spot­light and to the at­ten­tion of so­cial sci­en­tists. To us, ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als con­tain­ing sex­u­al prac­tices are as dis­turb­ing as in­ex­plic­a­ble: it is re­port­ed that many girls and boys in rur­al vil­lages un­der­go some kind of ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­al be­tween the age of 8-15 in or­der to be ac­cept­ed by the el­ders and peers as adults. These rit­u­als are wide­ly spread through­out the coun­try, al­though, in most cas­es they do not en­tail what is re­ferred to as sex­u­al cleans­ing. Yet, es­pe­cial­ly in some ar­eas in Malawi’s South­ern Re­gion, girls and boys are en­cour­aged or forced to en­gage in sex­u­al in­ter­course as a part of the ini­ti­a­tion ei­ther among peers, or worse, with sex work­ers called ‘hye­nas’.

An im­por­tant el­e­ment in un­der­stand­ing the so­cial norms that sus­tain these prac­tices are the at­ti­tudes that peo­ple have to­wards harm­ful tra­di­tion­al prac­tices. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, stan­dard re­search tech­niques are not fit for cap­tur­ing peo­ple’s true opin­ions as they may be bi­ased by so­cial de­sir­abil­i­ty. In our re­search, a com­pelling way to avoid this prob­lem is by con­duct­ing a list ex­per­i­ment. Ba­si­cal­ly, the re­searcher presents a list of state­ments to two groups of re­spon­dents who get to say how many of the state­ments they agree with. The re­searcher does not know which par­tic­u­lar state­ments the re­spon­dents agree with, only how many. In our case, one group an­swered a list of three in­nocu­ous state­ments, while an­oth­er group ad­di­tion­al­ly had to take po­si­tion on a state­ment that we were ac­tu­al­ly in­ter­est­ed in (e.g. “Girls can de­cide them­selves whether or not to be sex­u­al­ly ini­ti­at­ed”). The dif­fer­ence in the av­er­age num­ber of agreed state­ments be­tween the two groups re­flects the preva­lence of that at­ti­tude in our sam­ple.

Study­ing at Zurich Uni­ver­si­ty, I un­der­stood that con­duct­ing an ex­per­i­ment in the lab with uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents as par­tic­i­pants is al­ready fair­ly com­pli­cat­ed. Thus, imag­ine do­ing the same in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties in south­ern Malawi, where some of the peo­ple have not spent a sin­gle day of their life in school. That is why I was tasked to run a pi­lot in three dif­fer­ent vil­lages so we could test whether the ex­per­i­ment works as in­tend­ed. Soon I re­al­ized that I was go­ing to face var­i­ous chal­lenges. Af­ter a few days of ad­min­is­tra­tive prepa­ra­tions and train­ing for the in­ter­view­ers, we ven­tured into the field with a 4x4, a stack of ques­tion­naires, a few box­es of soap as give­aways, and a lot of bot­tled wa­ter. It soon be­came ob­vi­ous: No­vem­ber in Malawi is a mis­an­throp­ic place. The sun burns down at 39 de­grees Cel­sius, in­sects are every­where, and to top things off: hun­gry hip­pos are look­ing for a mid­night snack.

Hip­pos cool­ing down in the Shire Riv­er

All the three vil­lages in­clud­ed in the study were lo­cat­ed in around Li­wonde Na­tion­al Park on the banks of the Shire Riv­er and close to the Mozam­bique bor­der. While dri­ving into the vil­lage on day one the first prob­lem al­ready dawned on me. There were chil­dren all over the place (like pret­ty much every­where in Malawi), but al­most no par­ent to be seen, which we des­per­ate­ly need for con­duct­ing the in­ter­views. At first it seemed odd to me. Weren’t the vil­lages bustling with peo­ple when we con­duct­ed fo­cus group dis­cus­sions three months ear­li­er? For this sit­u­a­tion, Math­ews, our field su­per­vi­sor and a na­tive Malaw­ian had an an­swer ready: No­vem­ber marks the be­gin­ning of the rainy sea­son, the vil­lagers are all out sow­ing their fields (note to my­self: al­ways check the agri­cul­tur­al cy­cle). Luck­i­ly, by 10 o’clock peo­ple that had been work­ing since five in the morn­ing start­ed re­turn­ing and my team and I were able to ap­proach them for the in­ter­views.

Af­ter the in­ter­view­ers had sprawled out and fin­ished their first few di­a­logues, I start­ed join­ing them for sit-ins. The next prob­lem emerged soon enough, but this time it was about me. Af­ter lis­ten­ing to a young moth­er be­ing in­ter­viewed for only a few min­utes, dozens of kids be­gan flock­ing around us whis­per­ing to each oth­er and point­ing their fin­gers at me. It is not every day that a Mzun­gu (Chichewa for Eu­ro­pean) shows up on their front porch. So, I de­cid­ed to leave the moth­er and the in­ter­view­er alone and let the chil­dren show me where they play soc­cer. Af­ter an hour or so, they re­al­ized that I was not that in­ter­est­ing af­ter all, which al­lowed me to lis­ten to some more in­ter­views.

A re­spon­dent be­ing in­ter­viewed by Anafi on the third day in the field

Af­ter the first day I had al­ready learned many things. First and fore­most, that the prob­lems nev­er pop up where and when you ex­pect them to. For in­stance, one re­spon­dent was re­luc­tant to par­tic­i­pate be­cause she was wor­ried that the ex­per­i­ment was re­lat­ed to some­thing like Sa­tanism. To in­di­cate agree­ment with the state­ments we used match­sticks that ap­par­ent­ly have some sort of sym­bol­ic char­ac­ter. Amid the ru­mors of blood­suck­ers trav­el­ling through the South of the coun­try, Sa­tanism is not some­thing you want your­self be­ing linked to.

Day one: Atu­pele in­ter­view­ing a woman

A sec­ond im­por­tant les­son for me was the need to ac­knowl­edge the sta­tus and pow­er of the tra­di­tion­al lead­ers. Each day, first thing in the morn­ing Math­ews and I would go to the chief’s house and have an ex­tend­ed chat with him about what we were do­ing, who we were ask­ing, and what we would do with this in­for­ma­tion. With one ex­cep­tion, the chiefs were usu­al­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to­wards us, but on the third day we got to ex­pe­ri­ence the pow­er of the tra­di­tion­al au­thor­i­ty. We lit­er­al­ly found our­selves be­ing chased out of a vil­lage from a chief that was clear­ly look­ing for some duba-duba (the Malaw­ian ex­pres­sion for that ex­tra pock­et mon­ey) which we re­fused to give him – we can­not bud­get for it.

Meza the dri­ver with his new friends.

All in all, it was a week full of fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, many is­sues to be solved and a lot of lessons learned. I re­al­ized that small things like keep­ing time in check can al­ready prove to be seem­ing­ly in­su­per­a­ble chal­lenges in the Malaw­ian coun­try­side. And what about the ex­per­i­ment? Well, it worked! Pre­lim­i­nary analy­sis shows that in fact there is a huge gap be­tween at­ti­tudes to­wards harm­ful tra­di­tion­al prac­tices when peo­ple are asked di­rect­ly or in se­cre­cy, and this is only a pi­lot. Stay tuned for more re­sults to come.