Chiefs are breaking the silence over the controversial abortion law, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA reports.
Senior Chief Mwakaboko has a word for Karonga North legislator Mungasulwa Mwambande: “If you want girls to learn until they can stand on their own, you and your fellow lawmakers should support the Termination of Pregnancy Bill when it goes to Parliament,”
He says: “Thousands of girls are quitting school and dying because of the pressure early pregnancies and marriages exert on their wellbeing.”
On a scorching February morning along the northern shoreline of Lake Malawi, we found the traditional leader and his advisors perching in a shade of a mango tree near a wilting rice field.
The crunch talks at his royal court focussed on the “shattered future” of a teenager banished from Iponga Primary School after terminating a pregnancy at home.
He states: “Very soon, I know, I will have to handle this case. I have been told that the girl was bleeding when she went to school after secretly terminating a pregnancy. She aborted because she wants to learn, so my advisors and I will sit down with the headteacher and a mother group to settle the matter without endangering her education.”
The custodian of culture sounds determined to keep girls in school and ensure no one to die giving birth.
When Covid-19 disrupted learning in 2020, he hit the road persuading pregnant and married teenagers to return to school.
He is worried about high dropout rates as nearly half of Malawian girls marry before their 18th birthday and almost a third fall pregnant before reaching 19.
The twin tragedy surged during five-month school closure when the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare counted 13 000 teen pregnancy and 40 000 child marriages.
The surge shocked the chief appalled by illicit marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18.
“I have terminated more than 10 child marriages so far because children are safer in school. However, early marriages and pregnancies remain rampant. Some girls fall pregnant as young as 14,” he bemoans.
Malawians aged below 18 constitute slightly over half of the country’s population, but just over a quarter of girls in Standard One remain in school until they sit for the primary school-leaving examination in Standard Eight due to teen pregnancies and marriages.
The teenager, who scraped off her pregnancy using cassava sticks says she was afraid of being kicked out of school, my parents’ home and church.
“I didn’t know what parents, teachers and onlookers would say if they discovered that I was pregnant. Several unanswered questions were haunting my mind when I approached an elderly woman to help me,” she says.
At the northern tip of Malawi, pregnant girls are perceived to be old enough to marry regardless of age. When a schoolgirl is seen hanging out with a member of the opposite sex in the evening, she is forced to marry him.
“I terminated the pregnancy because I had nowhere to run. My partner had denied responsibility and my parents wouldn’t keep me if I stopped schooling to give birth,” says the girl ejected from school.
Malawi’s colonial laws inherited from Britain only permit abortion to save a woman’s life. Under Sections 149 to 151 of the Penal Code, providing or procuring abortion attracts a jail term of seven to 14 years except to preserve a woman’s life.
However, women and girls clandestinely terminate pregnancies despite the restrictive law discarded by Britain in 1967, three years after Malawi’s independence.
A nationwide study by the Ministry of Health revealed that almost 70 000 women had clandestinely terminated pregnancies in 2009. The findings indicate the country spends over K300 million a year to treat complications of unsafe abortions likely to land health workers in jail if performed in a hospital.
Reproductive health doctor Priscilla Phiri says the country’s underfunded hospitals spend up to K10 million to treat a single patient who spends over 10 days in hospital after piercing the uterus, ovaries and even intestines if she overdid it.
“Safe abortion costs less than K50 000, but post-abortion care is costly because most women and girls come late with severe infections. Sometimes we have to take them to a theatre to remove the uterus and ovaries, meaning she will never give birth again,” says the medical doctor.
A peer-reviewed study by reproductive health experts at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine and US-based Guttmacher shows 60 percent of 141 000 women who concealed backstreet abortions recieved medical treatment for life-threatening conditions.
The complications make unsafe abortion the fourth-largest killer of pregnant women in Malawi.
“This study abortion confirms why we need to decisively tackle the neglected killer, a silent public health challenge in the country,” says co-researcher Ausbert Msusa.
Induced abortion claims six to 18 lives out of every 100 maternal deaths, according to the line ministry’s findings.
Currently, the country buries 439 women for every 100 000 babies born despite the Millennium Development Goal to reduce the number to 155 by 2015.
The high maternal deaths prompted the Ministry of Health to ask the Malawi Law Commission to review abortion laws.
After public hearings, a special law commission formed in 2014 refused to legalise abortion but recommended three additional grounds for safe abortion.
However, the process stagnated in 2016 when some religious groups marched to Parliament against the liberalisation of abortion.
Breaking the silence
A motion which was to be moved by Chiradzulu legislator Mathew’s Ngwale last Thursday seeks to break the silence.
The chairperson of the Health Committee of Parliament wants the House to debate the proposed amendments to Section 243 of the Penal Code as recommended by the Law Commission report.
If the private member’s Bill passes, which gives a woman liberty to abort safely when her life is in danger, the pregnancy results from sexual violence or incest, the foetus is too impaired to survive or keeping the pregnancy harms her mental or physical wellbeing.
The grounds resemble the Law Commission resolution and the African Union’s Maputo Protocol, which guarantees women rights to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, including safe abortion.
Chief Mwakaboko states: I have no objection to the proposed grounds. If pregnancy can kill a woman, why should she keep it?
“If she is raped, the harassed person should have a choice to terminate it. If she is expecting a baby but she is likely to give birth to a stone, why wait?”
The chief’s liberal views personify a growing crop of traditional leaders who support what anti-abortion groups consider unacceptable in ‘the God-fearing nation’.
Says Fr Henry Saindi, the spokesperson for the local conference of Catholic bishops: “Laws must reflect the values of the people they are meant to serve. The proposed Bill is contrary to the truths and facts enshrined in our laws, culture, beliefs and value system. Children, including the unborn, are entitled by society and the State through the family.”
The priest says life begins at conception, downplaying the suggested exceptions as a ploy to fuel deliberate termination of pregnancies.
For Ngwale, this constitutes a major misconception even within the National Assembly where a game of numbers, “not the lives of women and girls”, may decide the cultural debate.
“Most people don’t understand this Bill. It’s encouraging that many chiefs now understand that it’s about saving the lives of women and girls, but religious leaders don’t,” he says.
Ngwale has sailed against a tide of resistance to shake the British legacy.
He explains: “Women in Malawi are heavily disadvantaged. When a man impregnates her, normally he will run away while she carries the pregnancy. For nine months and beyond, her problems will not be shared by anybody.
“Some die or incur life-changing injuries while terminating the pregnancy using sticks, wires and toxic herbs because hospitals cannot provide safe abortions although technology has improved. I sympathise with women. We need to put women at the same level as men.”
Priscilla Kunsinda, a youth champion for the Bill, says the voices of women and the youth are muted in the male-dominated debate.
“Hear out women and girls because they bear the brunt of every pregnancy,” she says.
Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje champions access to sexual and reproductive health services in his rural locality.
She urges lawmakers to soberly discuss the proposed changes to “one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world”.
“In rural areas, we keep burying women and girls who die as they attempt to secretly get rid of pregnancies while our urban colleagues safely abort with the help of private clinics and drugstores,” she says.
Inkosi Mabulabo of Mzimba says chiefs are tired of lying during funerals.
“We hoodwink people that the deceased succumbed to pneumonia or stomachache when she actually died from unsafe abortion due to the law which suddenly falls silent when her peers in town just walk into a private clinic or buy some pills to abort safely. Where is justice? Where is equality under the law?”
Why not Malawi?
Brian Ligomeka, from the Centre for Solutions Journalism, urges lawmakers to seriously consider the recommendations of the law commission.
He says: “The chiefs know the burden of hidden abortions. Our neighbours in Zambia, which is constitutionally a Christian nation, relaxed the colonial abortion law. Mozambique next door also changed the laws to permit abortion.
“South Africa and Ethiopia allow abortion on demand. Tunisia, an Islamic country, has the most liberal abortion law on the continent. Why Malawi holding on to the laws abandoned by those who imposed it on us,” asks Chief Kawinga of Machinga has met 24 legislators in the Eastern region to vote for new exceptions to the law. n
NEXT WEEK: Malawi’s abortion laws make one liable to seven to 14 years imprisonment but hasn’t stopped deaths and family breakdowns caused by the procedure. What should be way forward?