, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 467-479

Ethnic variations in observance and rationale for postpartum sexual abstinence in malawi

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Using quantitative and qualitative data from three culturally heterogeneous ethnic groups in Malawi, I show that differences in postpartum sexual abstinence are closely associated with community-specific rationales for the practice, particularly differences in the definition and timing of child-strengthening rituals that couples are required to perform before resuming intercourse. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the primary rationale for abstinence in the study areas is not linked to child spacing. Among Tumbukas in the north, most women perform the ritual immediately after resuming menstruation. Among the other ethnic groups, the rituals can be performed at any time after the end of postpartum bleeding. The study underscores the utility of the complementary micro-level approach in understanding reproductive behavior in sub-Saharan Africa.

The research was made possible through Grants RF 99008#33 and RF 99009#199 from the Rockefeller Foundation. The author is grateful to Jane Menken (University of Colorado), Susan Watkins (University of Pennsylvania), Monica Magadi, Pierre Ngom, Gloria Chepngeno, and Salome Wawire (African Population and Health Research Center) for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.