Rebecca Jacobson
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Planning Families After They’ve Already Begun

November 16, 2009 @ 2:49 AM | Permalink

An oversized spiral-bound book in her hands, Yamikani circles the dilapidated schoolroom. She shows an illustration to each of the young women, 14- to 25-year-olds seated in flimsy plastic lawn chairs. Giggles develop into hoots as the women glimpse the image. They slap each other’s arms. Yamikani joins in the laughter.

The next picture meets a more considered reaction. The women are quiet and lean forward to examine the diagram. Yamikani runs her finger across the page, pointing out the illustration’s main features.

It’s a humid Wednesday afternoon in this Blantyre township, and these women are learning about family planning. The first picture? A comical image of an underwear-clad man gaping at a woman as she stands over him and gulps down a birth control pill. And the second? A diagram illustrating the insertion and placement of an intrauterine device.

I’ve attended one other educational program in Malawi that addressed family planning. There, the message did not extend beyond abstinence and fidelity. (OK, the facilitators briefly mentioned condoms at the end of their presentation, but they told me afterwards that discussing such contraception is futile. Sex with a condom is considered artificial, they said.)

But today, the women hear it all: in addition to the pill and IUD’s, they receive information about the patch, hormone injections, vasectomies, sterilization, child spacing, and, yes, condoms. (I hold out for a demo — goodness knows this country has enough bananas for everyone to practice — but none occurs.) It is deeply refreshing to hear the women discuss these topics with such candor. It is a rush of Chichewa and I understand few details, but I can tell the discussion is animated and frank. A cell phone occasionally buzzes, and the women stir restlessly at times, but several take notes and raise their hands to ask questions or contribute opinions.

Yamikani and Mercy, the two women leading the training, say the need for such a workshop became apparent during the past year. As part of their work for Girls Empowerment Network, a nongovernmental organization that promotes gender equality, they run 10 afternoon clubs for women across Blantyre. When they launched the clubs in June 2008, few of the women had children. Eighteen months later, an astonishing number have become mothers. Yamikani didn’t have exact figures, but she estimates that she and Mercy saw more than half of their club members become pregnant.

There’s a baby corner on Wednesday. The mothers have clustered here, their sleeping infants across their laps. We begin the training with a series of lively games, and the mothers join in, their children swaddled with strips of fabric and bouncing against their backs. A few toddlers wobble around. One boy has slipped on his mother’s glittery silver heels and shuffles across the pitted, dusty concrete floor.

The presence of so many children surprises me at first. The babies coo and wail as Yamikani explains to the women about contraception, about ovulation, about HIV transmission. Mercy addresses unwanted pregnancies. I wonder about the children here. I wonder what their mothers are thinking.

But I don’t ask. Perhaps, I decide, it makes sense that these children, the reason for this training, have joined their mothers in attendance.


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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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