Academic journal article Demographic Research

Beyond Denomination: The Relationship between Religion and Family Planning in Rural Malawi

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Beyond Denomination: The Relationship between Religion and Family Planning in Rural Malawi

Article excerpt


Despite the centrality of religion and fertility to life in rural Africa, the relationship between the two remains poorly understood. The study presented here uses unique integrated individual- and congregational-level data from rural Malawi to examine religious influences on contraceptive use. In this religiously diverse population, we find evidence that the particular characteristics of a congregation-leader's positive attitudes toward family planning and discussion of sexual morality, which do not fall along broad denominational lines-are more relevant than denominational categories for predicting women's contraceptive use. We further find evidence for a relationship between religious socialization and contraceptive behavior.

1. Introduction

The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa has prompted new discussions about the role of religious doctrine and religious institutions in shaping sexual behavior. By comparison, the importance of religion for other forms of reproductive behavior in the region has largely been neglected in recent years. Given that religion and fertility are two of the dominant characteristics of the rural African landscape, this omission is unfortunate - both theoretically and practically. Questions about how these two phenomena are related are central to developing better understandings of the cultural and demographic features and futures of the region.

In this paper, we ask how religion and religious involvement are associated with contraceptive behavior in rural Malawi. We draw on unique linked individual- and congregational-level data that allow us to move beyond the status-quo of demographic studies on religion and fertility, which has been to identify and explain differences in fertility and contraceptive use patterns between broad denominational categories. In focusing our attention at the congregational level-the level of direct interaction with both religious authority (leaders) and lay people (fellow congregation members)-we examine characteristics that are more relevant to the lives of rural Malawian women and more sociologically interesting for testing and improving theories of religious influence on reproductive behavior.

2. Background

Demographers have historically been interested in the relationship between fertility and religion in sub-Saharan Africa because of the region's high fertility and dynamic and influential religious environment. For example, John Caldwell and Pat Caldwell began their 1987 article with the statement: "Sub-Saharan Africa3 may well offer greater resistance to fertility decline than any other world region. The reasons are cultural and have much to do with a religious belief system that operates directly to sustain high fertility but that also has molded a society in such a way as to bring rewards for high fertility" (Caldwell and Caldwell 1987:409). They were not alone in this sentiment: religion was-and to an extent still is-seen largely as a barrier to fertility decline and to family planning adoption in the region.

Over the past two decades much has changed in the religious context of sub- Saharan Africa-new forms of Christianity and Islam have spread, evidenced by dramatic growth in Pentecostalism and Arabicized Islam (Isichei 1995; Meyer 2004; Levtzion and Pouwels 2000). The reproductive context of the region has changed over the past twenty years as well. While fertility remains high compared to other parts of the world, modern family planning is widespread and the rewards for high fertility described by the Caldwells are no longer clear. How, in this new context, does religion-which is still vibrant and influential-affect fertility behavior?

McQuillan (2004) proposed three preconditions necessary for religion to influence fertility. He argued that religion will affect fertility behavior when it: (1) articulates norms relevant to fertility; (2) can communicate these values and promote compliance; and (3) is central to the social identity of its followers. …

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