Navigating livelihood uncertainty: prevailing wisdoms guiding fertility preferences in rural Malawi

Sarah Garver


Context/Background: Malawi has experienced social and demographic change although economic livelihoods remain characterized by uncertainty. Economic models of fertility posit shifts in the value of children but the role of uncertainty in shaping prevailing wisdoms about good childbearing is often overlooked.

Data Source and Methods: Thematic content analysis with 48 in-depth interviews collected with 29 women in Central Malawi at two time points during 2016. 

Findings: Three dominant schema, or prevailing wisdoms, about good childbearing emerged as guiding individuals through uncertain futures. When implemented, they can both encourage and discourage further childbearing. Economic considerations are dominant in discussions of fertility goals but these don’t always reflect individualistic calculations of available resources. Furthermore, normative uncertainty can encourage less contingent fertility preferences.

Conclusion: How individuals navigate fertility goals matters for reducing unintended pregnancy, and for economic and health policy. Investment in stable livelihoods, not just poverty alleviation, and expanded family planning services represent long-term investments.


fertility preferences; economics; uncertainty; postponement; qualitative

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ISSN 2308-7854 (online); ISSN 0850-5780 (print)

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