Studies of contraceptive use reveal intersecting, and often competing, life realms that individuals navigate when making fertility decisions. The decision of whether or not to use contraception is only in part a decision about one’s desire for a child; it is also a consideration of potential career tradeoffs, social network repercussions, financial resources, and the development of one’s identity as an adult – man or woman. Alternatively, a laissez faire approach to pregnancy prevention can be equally revealing of an individual’s or couple’s negotiations through other important life goals.
Education and marriage are two important life realms factored into fertility decisions. Studies of the life course have looked at the sequencing and timing of marriage and education trajectories, highlighting the entry and exit of individuals in educational institutions interspersed with transitions to marriage, work, and family (Kerckhoff, 2000; Marini, 1987; Rindfuss, Swicegood & Rosenfeld, 1987). However, it is not enough to acknowledge that the timing and sequencing of various trajectories are interrelated, or even that the sequencing is highly varied (Rindfuss et al., 1987; Shanahan, 2000). It is also important how these trajectories are negotiated simultaneously. As Settersten (2003) discusses, we can miss the interdependent nature of transitions and trajectories when we view them simply as “piled on top of each other” or occurring at the same life stage. Individuals do not experience marriage and education trajectories independently but instead they are possible future transitions that define the ways in which they exert agency while embedded in a presently constrained context.
In 1994, Malawi eliminated primary school fees. Today the majority of young women finish primary schooling putting them ‘at risk’ of secondary school. Traditionally, marriage was the primary transition to consider for young women. In addition, current use of modern contraceptives among women aged 15-49 has risen from 6% in 1992 to 41% in 2010 (DHS, 2010). As a result, women are now negotiating fertility decisions in a much different institutional and cultural context than their mothers and older relatives.
Our rich qualitative data gathered in rural Malawi during the summer of 2013 reveals the importance of fertility, livelihood, and intimate relationships when negotiating the transition to womanhood in rural Malawi. I find that attitudes and behaviors regarding contraception are distinguished by the combination of a young woman’s life goals regarding marriage and education. Young women find themselves in a decision-making realm of constraints defined by the intersection of marital and educational aspirations, and the gendered consequences associated with unintended pregnancies. To pursue education and also preserve her marriageability, she finds herself in tension with reason to exert both high and low control over her fertility. The magnitude of these tensions is illustrated by three paths of contraceptive behavior, which I have chosen to describe as: Minimalists, Gamblers, and Pioneers.
The Minimalists have little reason to prevent pregnancy as a sexual relationship can move without obstacles towards marriage where childbearing is expected immediately. Since social expectations define the male as a breadwinner, marriage is seen as a viable livelihood strategy for women. As one young woman described, “Sometimes I say to myself, if only I would have a man to marry, I could get married. Should I go and look for a house to rent or should I go seek a job?“ (in-depth interview, never-married woman). Her decision about dating was directly linked to a livelihood dilemma. Furthermore, the transition to womanhood comes with the transition to motherhood. Being a mother brings respect, pride, and a sense of knowledge such that “the moment you have a child you know… how to approach things in life” (in-depth interview, married mother). Without education, and in light of the strong expectation of childbearing, women pursuing marriage have little reason to prevent pregnancy.
The Gamblers are often contraceptive risk takers relying on less effective contraceptive methods in order to maintain both education and marriage prospects. Hormonal methods are considered “married methods” and when used outside of marriage carry the risk of being labeled a prostitute and careless about her future. Furthermore, hormonal methods are feared to cause temporary or complete infertility when used at young ages, thus encouraging young women to preserve their marriageability by avoiding hormonal contraception. On the other hand, being in a relationship is equated to sex and thus young women find themselves advocating for condom use and the calendar method to their male partners. However, using condoms is a “male’s decision” and young men typically have less motivation to prevent pregnancy given their ability to avoid many of the consequences of an unintended pregnancy. Firstly, it is not the act of sex as much as it is the pregnancy that is considered a sin, thus identifying the woman as the site of immorality. Secondly, when a woman is found pregnant, often the young man can leave for a distant relative’s home or accuse the woman of promiscuity thereby escaping the responsibility of an unintended pregnancy. Young men instead voiced the “inconvenience” of obtaining condoms or dissatisfaction with the method as the justification for not using condoms with their partners.
Finally, the Pioneers are taking the road less traveled, prioritizing education above all else. Due to social definitions of dating and relationships, their decision is not about which contraceptive method to use but whether to pursue a relationship at all. All women prioritizing education had experiences of relationships that ended when they refused to have sex. In many cases, their prioritizing of education was tied to a precarious livelihood making the ability to support themselves of utmost importance.
In summary, patterns and attitudes of contraceptive use hold value beyond their public health implications. They reveal the complexity of fertility decisions, and the ways in which young women navigate highly constrained contexts. While we often focus on one dimension of a life stage – education, marriage, childbearing – by highlighting all three we can see how social behavior is the result of considerations in each domain. Furthermore, as researchers, we can gain a better appreciation for the complexity of the lived experience. Theoretically, this research argues for increased attempts to capture the intersectionality and relational processes which define our experiences and transitions. Ultimately, our ability to understand the aspirations and negotiations of young woman will also make our public health and policy-related efforts more effective and better targeted to meet the needs of young women and men.
Kerckhoff, A. C. (2000). Transition from school to work in comparative perspective. In Hallinan M T (ed.) Handbook of the Sociology of Education. Springer, US, 453-474.
Marini, M. M. (1987). Measuring the process of role change during the transition to adulthood. Social Science Research, 16(1), 1-38.National Statistical Office (NSO) and ICF Macro [DHS 2010] 2011. Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010. Zomba, Malawi, and Calverton, Maryland, USA: NSO and ICF Macro.
Rindfuss, R. R., Swicegood, C. G., & Rosenfeld, R. A. (1987). “Disorder in the life course: How common and does it matter?”. American Sociological Review, 52(6), 785-801.
Settersten, Richard (2003) “Age Structuring and the Rhythm of the Life Course.” In J. Mortimer and Michael Shanahan (Eds.) Handbook of the Life Course. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York.
Shanahan, M. J. (2000). “Pathways to adulthood in changing societies: Variability and mechanisms in life course perspective.” Annual Review of Sociology, 26(1), 667-692.