In December, a few days after I returned from a global health reporting trip sponsored by the UN Foundation to Malawi, I taught a class at the Spence School, a tony, all-girls private institution in Manhattan. I showed up at Spence still jetlagged, trying to adjust my mind from east Africa to just east of Central Park. I was tasked with talking a small class of freshmen and sophomores about sexual health, consent, and slut-shaming.
Seventy-two hours earlier, I had been talking to a different group of teenage girls about a similar topic. Except those girls lived in the Mangochi district of southern Malawi, and many of them had gotten pregnant as teenagers, married, and dropped out of school. At the urging of parents, community members, and local chiefs, many divorced their husbands and re-enrolled.
Despite overlapping challenges, when I was talking to the Spence students, I was better able to recognize the complexities in their lives—that the girls who attended on scholarship were in radically different positions than those who grew up in Upper East Side townhouses; that unintended pregnancy was an ordeal that could be dealt with but teenage marriage and birth was not an option; that cliques and social tiers influenced what each girl felt she could say in class; that at 15, some of the girls were likely sexually experienced and some still awaited their first kiss. I could talk to them collectively about sexuality while realizing they came from very different places as individuals.
In Malawi, my understanding of the narrative was more one-dimensional. Most of the teens indicated that they had married their baby’s fathers, and later divorced. I assumed they married because of the kind of sexual shame and purity culture that underlies shotgun weddings in more conservative corners of the United States. The girls told me that no, there was no shame in having a baby outside of marriage, but they were nonetheless compelled to marry. Even after peppering them with questions, I couldn’t figure out why, if there was no stigma attached to unwed pregnancy, a teenage girl would feel pressured to marry the man who impregnated her.
This sort of culture gap is the new normal. With global health and human rights coverage increasingly funded by foundations that organize reporting trips, Western journalists who don’t understand the nuances of a place are parachuting in for a week, charged with covering some of the most complex and distressing aspects of human existence. These trips are invaluable resources, and global health reporting would simply not have the reach it does without them. But this setup also has many potential pitfalls that can prevent well-meaning reporters from accurately conveying the subtleties of their sources’ experience, and it’s our professional obligation to address them. Admitting our own fallibilities can be terrifying, but remaining alert and self-aware can help mitigate the problem.
In Malawi, I figured out why teens were marrying by admitting I couldn’t figure it out: I told a local parent I wasn’t getting it, and asked her to spell it out for me piece by piece, like I was stupid. It’s poverty, she said, not stigma. While it’s no problem to have a baby with someone you aren’t married to, a baby is another mouth to feed, and it makes more economic sense to make the baby’s father the new family breadwinner.
Writing this down now, the answer seems obvious. But from a middle-class, white, American context—and also from the context of reporting on many other communities around the world where out-of-wedlock pregnancy stigma and shame do motivate early marriage—it wasn’t. My own assumptions shaped how I was hearing and interpreting the girls’ stories, and even the questions I was asking.
It was a good lesson: Don’t assume you understand even the most basic concepts. Ask questions that are open-ended and don’t assume you know the answer. Remember that your own values are far from universal, and that the act of asking a question itself frames the issue for the respondent and influences their response.