Times have become rough for guardians of schoolgirls who get pregnant or marry young. By-laws and fines are part of the national strategy to keep every girl in school. Several organisations want community leaders to adopt sanctions against child marriages and teen pregnancies. At the same time, it may be dangerous.
Centre for Community and Youth Development (CCYD) executive director Westone Msowoya warns that high-handed enforcement of the by-laws, coupled with a colonial law, could be pushing girls to procure deadly clandestine abortions.
“The by-laws have reduced child marriages, but some girls are being forced to terminate pregnancies by their guardians and partners to evade penalties, which range from chickens to goats, money to public reprimands,” he says.
CCYD works in nine districts where child marriages are widespread. According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS), 47 in 100 women marry before their 18th birthday, the minimum marriageable age.
Some parents banish pregnant girls to marry.
The MDHS shows 29 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 are pregnant.
“If you are pregnant, age won’t save you from angry parents ordering you to go to whoever impregnated you,” says a 17-year-old girl who married a teenager four years older when she got pregnant aged 13.
Many chiefs have adopted by-laws credited with reducing child marriages. In 2011, UNFPA reported that half of girls in Malawi married young.
But follow-ups on some pregnant schoolgirls indicate that strict dos and don’ts are ramping up abortions which cause injuries disabilities and deaths.
“To evade fines, some parents secretly facilitate abortions which can be risky for the girls,” says Msowoya. “We observed some pregnant adolescents and discovered that pregnancies vanished with time.”
Msowoya shares a tale from Dowa District where Traditional Authority (T/A) Kayembe recently shocked mourners by announcing at a funeral that the deceased succumbed to severe post-abortion complications.
“Between March and August, the follow-ups indicated that six girls in Kayembe died due to abortions. I attended the funeral of one. Her parents tearfully told us they forced her to terminate the pregnancy. It was her third abortion. They were afraid of fines or being rebuked,” he says.
Abortion remains the third worst killer of pregnant girls and women in the country, killing up to 18 of women dying of pregnancy-related conditions.
Currently, colonial penal laws adopted 85 years ago only allow induced abortion to save a woman’s life. The Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua) blames this British legacy for fuelling deadly abortions.
According to Ministry of Health, about 70 000 women induced abortions in 2009. In hospitals, some were found with sharp sticks, rusty wires, herbs and soaps stuck in rotting wombs.
The healthcare system spends almost K750 million a year treating incomplete abortions, the ministry’s findings show.
However, some cases go unnoticed due to fear of arrests prescribed in the 1930 law.
Last year, Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine reported that about 141 000 abortions occurred in 2015.
Dr Thoko Msusa, who conducts pregnancy-related surgeries at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, was among the researchers. He states that many women and girls who terminate pregnancy only go to hospital when they experience complications. “They arrive after five or six days, when they are almost dying and their uterus is rotting. Some are brought in when they cannot walk or talk. Those who abort without any complications remain home,” he says.
To reduce maternal deaths, government assembled special law commissioners to review abortion laws. In July 2015, they recommended to expand grounds for legal and safe abortion.
If passed into law, the proposed exceptions will allow health workers to remove pregnancy when it endangers a woman’s life; affects her physical and mental health; results from rape, defilement or incest; and when the foetus is severely malformed and not viable.
Three years on, the bill has not gone to Parliament and anti-abortion sentiments based on religious and cultural values have crept in.
When asked about the delay to take the law to Parliament, a Cabinet minister said it would be risky for government to do so with just seven months before Malawians go to polls to elect the President, legislators and councillors.
“No one wants to burn his fingers in the eyes of the electorate. Which member of Parliament will vote for a termination of pregnancy bill with elections just around the corner?” said our source.
As Cabinet awaits favourable timing, Msowoya calls for government and non-governmental organisations to make abortion issues part of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) interventions.
“Many organisations are implementing SRHR services and information, but not much talk about dangers and costs of unsafe abortion. This creates a conducive environment for clandestine abortions,” he says.
US president Donald Trump’s ban on funding for pro-abortion groups has further gagged SRHR change agents from abortion rule.
But Minister of Health Atupele Muluzi, speaking when he opened Banja La Mtsogolo Clinic in Blantyre, stated that high unmet need for SRHR services and information among the youth fuel maternal deaths, abortions and school dropouts. About 55 in 100 unmarried, sexually active adolescents want to delay pregnancy, but they cannot access modern contraceptives.
For them, top-secret abortions offer easy but risky escape community bylaws, for strict regulations scarcely stop a woman from terminating a pregnancy when she decides to do so. n