Numbers and narratives: Making sense of gender and context in rural Malawi

Enid J Schatz, University of Pennsylvania


The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development prompted demographers and policy makers to focus research on the situation of women, particularly in Third World nations. Through accurate measurement, understanding and improvement of women's situation, researchers and policy makers believe other desirable outcomes will result. In particular, such improvements are expected to enhance women's control over their own reproductive and sexual health. Improving women's control is hypothesized to translate into reductions in fertility, increases in contraceptive use, and greater ability to negotiate safe sexual relations. The study of gender is relatively new to demography; thus, there is little agreement, however, about how to measure women's situation, or how to interpret quantitative measures that are currently in vogue. I integrate qualitative and quantitative methodologies to better understand women's situation and its relationship to sexual and reproductive health. My data come from two distinct regions of rural Malawi—the patrilineal North and the matrilineal South. I analyze the 1998 Malawi Diffusion and Ideational Change (MDIC) household survey; and supplement these data with semi-structured interviews I conducted in 2000 with 91 MDIC respondents. It is unclear whether women's situation is more pertinent at the individual or societal level. Thus, I examine the quantitative data at the individual and regional levels. Using regression analysis, I explore individual-level and regional-level effects of women's situation indicators on contraceptive use and worry about contracting HIV/AIDS. In addition, I compare the level of gender inequality in the two regions. In neither analysis do the women's situation indicators have consistent or strong associations with the outcome variables in the expected direction. Thus, I turn to qualitative data to explain the quantitative inconsistencies. I draw on the qualitative data to evaluate the quantitative indicators of women's situation-reviewing how respondents heard, interpreted, and answered the MDIC survey questions. In addition, the qualitative data become an inductive instrument uncovering the ways in which men and women in rural Malawi conceptualize women's status, autonomy, and power. Finally, I suggest ways in which these local perceptions of women's situation could be measured quantitatively in Malawi and more generally in sub-Saharan Africa in the future.

Subject Area

Demographics|Womens studies|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Schatz, Enid J, "Numbers and narratives: Making sense of gender and context in rural Malawi" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3043950.