In Malawi, mentions of abortion spark a fierry religious backlash.Recently, religious leaders have been rallying ‘God-fearing Malawians’ to warn their legislators not to pass the Termination of Pregnancy Bill next month.
However, State House spokesperson Brian Banda says President Lazarus Chakwera, a Pentecostal pastor, will not stop lawmakers from debating the Bill.
Says the presidential pres secretary: “The President may have an opinion on the matter, but he has always insisted that he wants systems to work independently.
“If religious leaders, be it bishops or sheikhs, have concerns about the private member’s Bill, the best approach is to lobby the legislators because they will debate this as representatives of the Malawians.”
This excites campaigners calling for an end of backstreet abortions blamed for up to 18 in every 100 pregnancy-related deaths, according to a 2009 study by the Ministry of Health.
They perceive the Bill to be tabled by Chiradzulu West legislator Mathews Ngwale, chairperson of the Health Committee on Health, as a shortcut to introduce new grounds recommended by the Special Law Commission on the Review of Abortion Laws.
It seeks to give health workers liberty to terminate a pregnancy results from rape, defilement or incest; affects a woman’s physical and mental well-being and the foetus is severely malformed to live.
The State-led law reform stagnated in 2016 when Malawi Law Commission published its findings, triggering mass protests convened by religious leaders.
The activists say Chakwera’s predecessor, Peter Mutharika, was afraid of enraging the electorate, having won just 33 percent of the vote in 2014
The change of regime in June has reignited debate over the controversial law initiated by the Ministry of Health to reduce pregnancy-related deaths estimated at 439 in every 100 000 live births.
Lobbying legislators to pass new exception to the country’s colonial abortion law, Ngwale said: “We want to address one of the problems facing our country—the high number of women dying because the current laws force them to seek abortion outside the healthcare system.
“The law is already there, but it only allows health workers to terminate a pregnancy if it endangers a woman’s life. This endangers the life of a woman. This must change. If a woman decides to terminate a pregnancy, she should do it safely.”
Religious leaders say the Bill is a tactical legalisation of abortion, likening it to murder. Catholics, Protestants and Muslims have teamed up against the pro-choice movement Archbishop Thomas Msusa termed sinful and alien.
However, Ngwale says it is ironic abortion laws imposed by Britain in 1929 forces Malawian women to perilously terminate pregnancies using wires, cassava stems and toxic herbs at the hands of unskilled hands.
He urges members of Parliament to stand firm and confront the fourth largest killer of pregnant women in Malawi.
Ngwale explains: “Politics can be funny. Politicians sometimes do not look at what proposed laws seek to address, but political correctness.
“They say if we pass this law, we will lose the votes—yet women keep dying from complications of unsafe abortion. Before us will come a motion asking us to ensure three grounds for safe abortion should be part of the law. You and I should take a firm stand and put a stop to these preventable deaths.”
Ngwale says the Bill does not belong to him, his committee, activists or donors, but the Ministry of Health, whose study showed that about 75 000 women procured abortions 11 years ago.
A 2015 study by reproductive health researchers at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine and US-based Guttimacher Foundation indicates that up to 141 000 clandestine abortions occur every year and 60 percent of them are treated for various complications in the country’s overwhelmed hospitals.
This shows the burden of unsafe abortion on the donor-funded healthcare system where abortion is outlawed by Section 149 of the Penal Code unless a woman’s life is in grave danger.
Ngwale implores MPs to stand up with him and “be counted as people who put a stop to the silent killer of women”.
“I don’t want women and girls to continue dying needlessly. I want to be part of the solution. It’s our duty as Parliament to safeguard lives,” he says.
No new law
The Bill is a word-for-word adaptation of the recommendations of the special law commission appointed in 2012 by then-president Joyce Banda, who champions safe motherhood. The commissioners, including representatives of the Catholic Church, Muslim Association of Malawi and Malawi Council of Churches, analysed current laws and held nationwide consultations. They recommended not to legalise abortion, but to add new grounds to the law inherited from Britain 90 years ago.
“The commission had a difficult task as it was dealing with an emotive subject that attracts mixed reactions and perceptions from different quarters depending the angle from which it is perceived, that is, from a legal, public health, moral or religious standpoint,” reports Justice Esmie Chombo, who led the commission.
Gender activist Emma Kaliya urges the male-dominated Parliament to finally settle the debate and “stop politicking with women’s lives”.
“The journey has been long. It has taken us over 10 years discussing this over and over again. Is it because it is a woman’s issue?” she asks.
In 2000, law commissioners who amended the Penal Code asked the government to create a standalone law regulating termination of pregnancy. A decade later, the framers of the Gender Equality Act described the 90-year-old abortion laws as “overly restrictive and inconsistent with the National Reproductive Health Policy as well as international conventions to which Malawi is party”.
Like the suggested grounds for safe abortion, the gender equality law localises the Maputo Protocol signed by Minister of Health Majorie Ngaunje. The African Union agreement requires government to guarantee women access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, including safe abortion. However, the law comes short of overtly mentioning abortion. Instead, its makers asked Capital Hill to appoint a special law commission to scrutinize abortion laws.
‘Abortion is a health issue’
Dr Chisale Mhango, who sat on the special law commission on abortion laws and escorted Ngaunje to the Mozambique capital for the signing of the African Union convention, says abortion is not a political debate, but a public health issue.
The former director of the Reproductive Health Unit in the Ministry of Health says restrictive laws and religious sermons cannot stop a woman when she decided to end a pregnancy.However, he fears Chakwera may not assent to the Bill if it passes in Parliament, a dramatic twist that occured in Sierra Leone in 2016.
He says: “We have a big problem because the President is a clergyman and the Vice-President [Saulos Chilima] is a serious Catholic.
A chance that this may become a law is slim unless the two understand that abortion is not a religious or political issue. Abortion is a public health issue because women are dying needlessly when the colonial masters who originated the restrictive law abandoned it a long time ago.”