Feminine futures: female initiation and aspiration in matrilineal Malawi

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A vibrant recent literature documents the challenges of achieving social adulthood in the context of economic decline and high youth unemployment in Africa and beyond. Those who have already made this transition, however, tend to reside in the margins of these texts, casting disapproving shadows. This article seeks to redress the balance by focusing on the significant efforts of social adults to shape young girls’ transitions to adult womanhood. In rural Malawi, this takes the form of female initiation rites, which have been adapted to include messages about the importance of formal education and the potential benefits of “waithood”. Rather than constituting a problem, delayed marriage is lauded as an alternative to the real social limbo entailed in early marriage and child bearing in a context of widespread poverty. Subtle alterations to initiation rites are thus embraced in an attempt to guide young women towards a more desirable future, at the same time as they are prepared, in moral and practical terms, for lives much like their elders’.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)786-803
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue number4
Early online date27 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018