The Moral Lens of Population Control: Condoms and Controversies in Southern Malawi

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Abstract

The study presents an investigation of stories about condoms in southern Malawi. Malawians' concerns about coercive population control imposed by a national government or international cabal provide a moral lens through which condoms and other health promotions are viewed, with unknown but probably negative impact on the use of condoms. The focus of the study is on the long shadow cast by population control because it is underresearched and, in fact, virtually unmentioned in most studies of health promotion, yet appears to be common if not ubiquitous. Moreover, this long shadow poses a distinct challenge to HIV-prevention and intervention efforts. The data for the study were gathered by six Malawian research assistants in Balaka district, in southern Malawi, who kept journals over a period of three years in which they recorded conversations and everyday chats that they observed. These journals demonstrate that condoms do not arrive in communities as neutral, value-free objects; rather they enter a social setting permeated with ideas about health, self-protection, and danger. The lens of population control has proved to be both durable and flexible, providing a moral context in which both commodities and actors can be understood. Disentangling condoms from the symbolic nexus in which they are fused with disease, population control, and malevolence will be an ongoing challenge in the struggle to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Malawi.

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