5 facts about Malawi’s children and why they are such magnets for Western celebrities

The numbers out of the southern African country just keep them coming back.

TENNIS star Roger Federer at the weekend travelled to Malawi, for a first-hand feel of a school funded from his foundation.

The Swiss star, currently ranked second in the world, has educational programmes in six countries in southern Africa, and hopes to school at least one million kids by 2018. His mother is South African and he retains a South African passport.

“You can get very sentimental and sad” about extreme poverty in places such as Malawi,” he told news wire AP in an interview on Monday, but said he was heartened by the positive outlook of the children he had met.

Malawi would appear to be a natural setting for yet another celebrity cause, the country having been catapulted into the world’s headlines following the adoption of two of its children by pop superstar Madonna.

Madonna’s charity projects however attracted huge political controversy, leading to the collapse of a would-be prestigious academy for poor girls that she had broken ground and compensated villagers for, and a presidential falling out, but as Federer’s cause shows, it has not deterred other celebrities.

Madonna backers included star actors Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow, but a website that chronicles celebrity giving shows scores more are active in the country.

Many are drawn by the headlines around the country’s high poverty rates, causing many to be out of school and the richest 20% owning 50% of the economy, but as Mail & Guardian Africa found from Unicef data, there has also been solid progress.

1— The country ranks 110th globally for its high under-five mortality, but it is a promising journey: in 1990 some 41 children died from every 1,000 live births, but by  2013 this number was down to 15. The infant mortality for children under one is also high at 13, but it has also tumbled by nearly two thirds from 35 in 1990. And notably, spending on health now outstrips that of any other development sector.

2— Some 14% of Malawian children were between 2009-2013 born with a low weight traceable to poor nutrition, but this is about mid-point for African countries— some such as Kenya are at 8%, while others like Mauritania record a staggering 35%, and it is at par with the regional average of 13%. Seven in every ten of the country’s children are also exclusively breastfed for the first six months, ahead of the sub-Saharan Africa average of 36%.

3— Some 170,000 Malawian children live with HIV, the most of any African country bar five, and this number rises to 500,000 when it comes to mothers, in a population of 16.4 million. While some 790,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS, the enrollment rate for orphans in school is a robust advert for effort, at robust 97%, compared with the lowest such African rate of 66% in Ivory Coast. Malawi also has a high gross enrolment ratio of 138% for males, and 143% for females, a trend repeated in primary school where girls outnumber boys.

4— Between 2009-2013, the country reported a maternal mortality of 680 deaths per 100,000 births, with only Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Lesotho and Sierra Leone having higher. This falls to a still-high 510 when adjusted. Some 71% of deliveries are still attended to traditionally, compared to 73% in an institution (Botswana has 99%, and Ethiopia 10%), and only 5% as Caesarean. But the real story is that at least 95% of mothers now have at least one ante-natal care visit, and just about half of its mothers clock up at least four. 

5— Malawi’s child labour statistics are high, with at least 26% involved between 2005-2013. At 50%, it also has the seventh-highest rate of child brides, behind only Burkina Faso, CAR, Chad, Niger, Mali and South Sudan. But in February the country banned child marriage, raising the legal age from 15 to 18 in a huge victory for its girls, some who were parcelled away aged less than 10 years.

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