What caught my eye this past week were “reports” that hundreds of primary school adolescents have become pregnant and/or have gotten married in various parts of Malawi. According to Zodiak Online and MBC, Mangochi has seen over 7000 teenagers being affected, Mchinji has had at least 210, while the number of cases in Dowa is more than 352! Reaction to these claims has been eclectic. However, the blame for such alarming numbers of unexpected expectancies has largely been put squarely on the government-instituted shutdown of all schools.
Two things stood out to me regarding these claims, namely the sheer number of cases that have been reported and the haste to condemn the shutdown of schools to be the driving force behind the figures. The statistics reported may give the impression that the nation is in a huge crisis. But is that really the case? Personally, I believe that before we get carried away with the claims, two things need to happen. First, we need to ensure that the statistics making round are verifiable. Second, we need to determine whether these occurrences are unprecedented. To this end, we need to ask questions like, “What is the source of these statistics?” “How were the data collected?” “What factors could be behind these numbers?” “Who are the men responsible for the pregnancies?” “How do these numbers compare to historical records?”
The first two questions focus on the accuracy of the data. In the age of fake news and social media, it is very easy for every Maria and Yohane to start and spread unfounded claims. Therefore, before we accept the numbers that have been in circulation, let us understand the sources of the data and the methodologies that were used to collect them. Once questions about the accuracy have been addressed, answers to the last three questions that are in the preceding paragraph can then help us get a clearer picture of where to place the blame for the teenage pregnancies and early marriages. In particular, before we point a finger at the government and by extension at the covid-19 pandemic, we need to rule out other factors such as inaccessibility of family planning methods, poverty, and cultural practices. We also need to have an idea of the type of men who are behind these pregnancies for us to comprehend the patterns driving these occurrences. Most of all, we need to compare the current numbers to the historical ones.
All this means one thing; as a country, we need to have a comprehensive data collection mechanism so that each district has a capacity to gather and act as a reliable source of information like these. Our country is in great need of such district centers. On August 6, 2020, the National Planning Commission (NPC), the body mandated to coordinate long and medium term national development plans, disseminated a review of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III. Documents like these are supposed to be guided by the body’s research agenda. For instance, among others, the research agenda on sustainable economic development aims at understanding the root causes of youth unemployment and underemployment. Reliable research-based solutions to issues like these will require reliable and periodic micro-level data. We cannot separate issues of teenage pregnancies and marriages from matters of youth unemployment and underemployment; if the youthful rush to enter into marriages before even completing secondary school education, then the aforementioned employment issues will persist.
The purpose of these district information centers that I am envisioning isn’t solely to collect data on teenage pregnancies and marriages. There are many other kinds of data that must be reliably and regularly collected at district levels like agricultural output, cases of human and animal diseases, number and nature of crimes committed, number of incarcerations, student to teacher ratios, and proportion of people in formal employment.
On employment-related statistics, the Ministry of Labor has already put in place plans to establish job centers in every district, where job seekers can profile their qualifications and apply for jobs. Other ministries need to borrow a leaf from the Ministry of Labor and also start their own data collection initiatives. These district information centers can then be a way of harmonizing all local data collection, organization, and storage. All the statistics collected could then uploaded to a national database so that researchers, development planners, and indeed the general public can easily access them. Only by having dependable, good quality data can we, as a country, fully capture the extent of the issues the country is facing and objectively evaluate the efficacy of the policies put in place to deal with the issues.