Chiradzulu West lawmaker Matthews Ngwale unmasks the “tactical withdrawal” of the motion for Parliament to debate the Termination of Pregnancy Bill, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.
In Malawi, an evangelist’s son has become the face of the push to beat the British legacy blamed for up to 18 in 100 pregnancy-related deaths nationwide.
“I am a Christian with a wife and three children. My father was an evangelist and my brother a CCAP reverend. I was a church elder at Chigumula CCAP,” he says.
In 2019, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Health volunteered to move the House to debate rising calls to expand access to safe abortion.
Having retracted the motion last year, he says the proposed law has nothing to do with his faith, but saving girls and women from preventable deaths that occur outside health facilities.
He reckons that more grounds for safe abortion will reduce maternal deaths caused by the third killer of pregnant women and girls in the country.
Currently, the law inherited from Britain in the 1930s only permits health workers to safely terminate a pregnancy when a woman’s life is in danger.
To avoid being jailed for up to 14 years, thousands of women in the country resort to clandestine abortion with the help of unskilled hands, including traditional birth attendants banned in 2010.
The prohibition has contributed to the decline of pregnancy-related deaths from 675 to 439 in every 100 000 live births in the past decade, but they secretly conduct what one of the survivors terms “life-or-death abortions”.
“When I decided to terminate my pregnancy, I knew it was a matter of life or death. What happens in secret ends in secret unless there are life-threatening complications,” says the 19-year-old woman once overdosed with a herbal concoction that left her “weak and bedridden for a week”.
The teenager, from Ngwale’s constituency, did not seek medical care for fear of shame and detention, but health workers who provide post-abortion care say they find sticks, wires and herbs in wombs of patients at risk of dying from aftermaths of the clandestine procedure.
The proposed law reform faces massive resistance within Ngwale’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the National Assembly.
Outside the House, some religious organisations opposed to abortion have threatened to campaign against him in 2025 general elections unless he dumps the law they consider sinful, alien and legalisation of deliberate abortion.
“If passed into law, which we do not believe will happen because we know our members of Parliament to stand up in defence of the life of the unborn child, we will engage the President not to assent to this deceptive law,” says Fr Henry Saindi, spokesperson of the local conference of Catholic Bishops who organised protests against the proposed law reform in December 2016.
Ngwale has temporarily withdrawn the motion, but says it has not been aborted.
He states: “I’m an old person and my aim is not to be a member of Parliament for life. My goal is that after five years, I should leave Malawi and Chiradzulu West better than they were in 2019. In 2025, it will be up to my people to judge me based on what I have achieved, not the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
“By the way, at least 70 percent of the lawmakers elected in 2014 didn’t make it to Parliament in 2019. Did any of them table a bill to change the restrictive abortion law?”
The man from Kachingwe Village in Traditional Authority Chitera, Chiradzulu West, says it is an insult to a Malawian woman by insinuating that when she gets pregnant, her first thought is to abort.
Ngwale worked with three University of Malawi institutions—the Polytechnic, College of Medicine and Kamuzu College of Nursing—to represent Chiradzulu West constituents in Parliament.
“My area was lagging behind. The roads were very, very poor; bridges were in shambles; and women and newborns were dying during childbirth. I went into politics to change the situation because there wasn’t much to show for all 55 years of independence and about three decades of democracy,” he narrates.
Senior Chief Chitera credits him for expanding Chitera Health Centre from “a tiny facility” to a child-friendly rural hospital.
She explains: “Many people know Honourable Ngwale as the mover of an abortion motion, but our MP has a rare passion for health for all.
“Previously, people in my territory used to endure long walks and pay extra costs to get life-saving services at Namadzi and Mbulumbuzi health centres in Chiradzulu North Constituency. Patients were suffering. Women were dying on the way. He is working hard to expand Chitera Health Centre.”
The traditional leader backed the calls for more grounds for safe abortion, saying the colonial law has not stopped women from terminating unwanted pregnancies and village heads are tired of churning lies when burying those who succumb to complications of unsafe abortions.
“Abortion still happens and when one dies from things they do in secret, we say they died from stomach complications. Lying isn’t dignifying. Why pretend that all is well when we know why our people are dying?” Chitera asks.
A study by the Ministry of Health shows that about 750 000 women induced abortion in 2009, causing between six and 18 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths.
The ministry tasked the Law Commission with reviewing the country’s abortion laws and international commitments.
These include the Maputo Protocol of the African Union, which requires governments to guarantee women’s access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion on the grounds recommended by the Special Law Commission and Ngwale.
The commissioners released their findings from nationwide consultations in 2015. They overruled calls to legalise abortion on demand, but proposed new grounds adapted word-for-word by the Private Member’s Bill.
New evidence from reproductive health experts at the College of Medicine and Guttimacher Institute in the US shows that almost 141 000 induced abortions occurred in 2015.
This exerts pressure on the fragile healthcare system as the researchers report that six in every 10 women behind these abortions received treatment in the country’s hospitals.
Lead researcher Dr Chisale Mhango finds it astonishing that the government has adopted solutions for all major causes of pregnant-related deaths—Aids, hypertension, bacterial infections and obstructed labour—but remains slow in tackling unsafe abortion.
The former director of reproductive health in the Ministry of Health says: “Restrictive laws and religious sermons haven’t stopped women from terminating unwanted pregnancies.
“When a woman doesn’t want to keep a pregnancy, she will get rid of it, but she is likely to use life-threatening methods such as wires, sticks and poisons fuelling complications that burden the same health facilities not permitted to provide safe abortion unless a woman’s life is in danger.”
From women losing lives to girls having rotting wombs scraped, the horrors of unsafe abortion compelled Ngwale’s committee to summon the Ministry of Health to account for the delays to table the Bill recommended by the Law Commission.
He explains: “When I became the chairperson, my committee received a lot of public health literature, including studies that confirm that abortion is a neglected killer of women and girls in the country. Having realised that the law reform was a government agenda, I summoned Ministry of Health officials and the then-minister.
“They blamed the delay to take the Termination of Pregnancy Bill to Parliament on Cabinet and the Ministry of Justice, but further inquiries proved beyond a doubt that both Cabinet and the governing party were afraid of a backlash and political suicide. That is why the Private Member’s Bill would be swift.”
But it has not been easy. Ngwale recalls being summoned to a DPP caucus, which ordered him to withdraw the Bill that endangered president Peter Mutharika’s re-election in the June 2020 fresh election. He did not.
“Instead,” he says, “I wasn’t shocked that on the eve of the day I was scheduled to read the motion in the chamber, the person earmarked to second it suddenly told me he wasn’t ready to do so.
“When both sides of the House heard that I had found a substitute, they resolved to proceed with government business even though Thursdays are set aside for Private Members’ Bills.”
A divided House united
Such were the drama on March 11 when Mwanza Central legislator Nicholas Dausi, a rosary-wearing Catholic and DPP executive, hailed the lawmakers for refusing to discuss the motion and “preserving the sanctity of life”. Leader of the House Richard Chimwendo Banda touted it as “a clear statement” on the Bill stuck on Parliament’s agenda for close to a year.
“The good thing is that even members of the opposition were in agreement that the Bill should not be discussed,” the MCP strongman told journalists, while youth activists marched outside Parliament in protest against 42 women parliamentarians’ indifference to the Bill said to benefit women and girls.
On May 24, his Lilongwe South counterpart Peter Dimba would accuse Ngwale of bringing “a foreign agenda which no one in the House can vote for” because “you are under external pressure”.
Ngwale says he is unfazed that some lawmakers and policymakers are politicising the Bill in fear of a backlash from the clergy, chiefs and voters.
“The Bill will be back. I can’t say a year or five, but I will look at the support on the ground. For now, there is need to senstise Malawians at all levels to understand and demand the Bill. When time is ripe, I will take the Bill back to Parliament,” he explains.
Group village head Kachingwe says it is time Malawians started asking their lawmaker to take tough calls for the benefit of the voiceless, especially women and the rural majority who bear the brunt of clandestine abortion.
“We are proud of what our MP is doing. While the wait continues, women keep dying from secret abortions. These people are Malawians and these deaths could be avoided with advancements in medicine and technology,” she says.
GVH Kachingwe reckons it is negligent of the lawmakers to preserve laws long discarded by the country’s colonial masters, who crafted them.
“Malawi is said to have attained independence 57 years ago, so why should women keep dying in gruesome circumstances because of laws that were brought in by our colonial masters? Are we really independent?
Activists opposed to the sluggish law reform are petitioning courts to determine the legality of what they consider a repressive relic of the British colonial empire.