Malawi has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates worldwide; at 141 births/1000 girls it is 3-fold higher than the global average. Adolescent pregnancy contributes to poor maternal and neonatal outcomes, school dropout, and poverty. In preparation for an information, education, and communication (IEC) intervention to reduce unintended pregnancy among adolescent girls, formative research was conducted to understand how and what sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information is shared with girls in southern, rural Malawi, and perceptions of such information among key informants.
Forty semi-structured interviews were conducted with three participant groups: adolescent girls (n = 18), mothers/female guardians (M/FGs) of adolescent girls (n = 12), and leaders of initiation rites (n = 10). Interviews were conducted in 15 villages. Data were analyzed and coded using Dedoose 7.5.
Participants widely acknowledged both the health risks and the general social unacceptability of early childbearing, yet adolescent pregnancy is common in the region. Respondents also acknowledged the importance of female school completion and the norm that pregnancy usually marks the end of a girl’s education. Unprotected transactional sex was reported to be common and driven by poverty. Initiation rites were described as prevalent and often encourage girls to practice sex at puberty. Contraceptives, and even condoms, were reportedly discouraged for adolescents due to concerns about inappropriateness for nulliparous and young girls and misconceptions about side effects. Adolescent respondents also noted barriers to accessing condoms and contraceptives. M/FGs were described as gatekeepers to SRH information and services, and many parents reported delaying SRH discussions until after sexual debut due to concerns about encouraging sexual activity. Adolescent and M/FG participants expressed a desire for role models or “outside experts” to provide SRH education and to promote an alternate vision to adolescent motherhood.
To improve SRH outcomes for adolescent girls, it is critical to engage key stakeholders and create an enabling environment so that girls can effectively act on the IEC they receive. Initiation counselors remain entrenched information sources; efforts to provide them with training on accurate SRH messaging could leverage an existing channel. Engaging parents, especially mothers, is crucial to encourage earlier SRH education and to gain their acceptance of adolescent access to SRH services. Also important is mobilizing the broader community of influencers in support of girls’ SRH and vision for a healthier future. Sensitization messages focusing on the health, educational and economic benefits of preventing early pregnancy may overcome misconceptions about and barriers to contraceptive use. Finally, fostering girls’ aspirations for school completion and jobs and other income generating opportunities via role models can encourage an alternative to adolescent motherhood. Ultimately, poverty and gender inequity reduction is critical for long-lasting impact on the SRH of adolescent girls in the region.