Following the ‘tactical withdrawal’ of a motion for parliament to debate proposed amendments to expand access to safe abortion law, our Staff Writer SUZGO CHITETE interviews seasoned gender activist Emma Kaliya, chairperson of the Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua), who says the resistance faced by the motion mirrors an age-old resistance to pro-women laws.
:Are you surprised with the resistance to the Termination of Pregnancy Bill?
: I am not. We are a society that fears the unknown all the time. If you do not understand the issue, you advance the fear of unknown.
Secondly, people are very afraid of religious leaders. They equate faith leaders to God, so they do not want to question them even where they are taking them in the wrong direction. This Bill, unfortunately, is looked at as immoral. For fear of religious leaders with a contrary view, lawmakers are not willing to discuss this matter.
Q: For years, you were part of the push for gender laws and policies. How was the mood?
: It has always been the same through and through, but the current resistance is extreme.
When we came to the Wills and Inheritance Act, they said women want to benefit from this law. When we were discussing the deceased estate law in Lilongwe, a male Cabinet minister rose and said women would have children with several men so that they collect money when the man dies. They said women would be divorcing anyhow so that they benefit from property.
You talk of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, it took 12 years for Parliament to pass the law and it only received political will when a man chopped the hands of Marieta Samuel in Dowa.
We had been discussing the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act from 2002 and it was only passed in 2015.
When it came to the Gender Equality Act, the fightback was the same. They wanted to block it, but it passed. So, this has been the trend, even with the HIV and Aids Act.
Anything that promotes women’s welfare does not easily pass in this country.
Q: Would the situation be different with more female parliamentarians?
: My view is that having more female members of Parliament will not automatically eliminate resistance to women-related laws. They are also human beings just like other MPs there. They are driven by emotions. They are driven by societal thinking that is sometimes not helpful. As such, I don’t think having more female MPs would have made a difference in the campaign to end unsafe abortion. But I think that if we had more MPs who are gender-responsive, there would be a difference. It does not matter if you have more women who are not gender-responsive and do not appreciate principles of equality—there will be no difference. Malawi lacks gender-responsive lawmakers.
: Why is Malawi struggling to domesticate the Maputo Protocol which requires governments to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion?
: I have heard some leaders saying we need to have our own laws that reflect our so-called values. But the question is how did we ratify a protocol we cannot make use of? At the time of ratifying, why didn’t we raise the issue of values? Malawi is a country that on the international scene will show that it is committed to equality. You talk of the Universal Periodic Review, Cedaw [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] committee and other bodies, we show commitments, yet we behave differently when we come back home. Who are we fooling? The international obligations inform national policy and laws.
:In 2015, the Special Law Commission reported that most Malawians consulted were against legalising abortion on demand, but favoured just some more grounds for safe abortion. Is this really the thinking out there?
: I wouldn’t know. Like any one else, I just read the report.
:After reading the report, do you agree with the findings?
: There are Malawians who lack information and those who really want to see a change in the law. These women cannot speak because the society is gagging them and even those that say the current law is OK, it just pretence because they are afraid of society. They do not want to be called deriding names.
Society thinks advocating safe abortion is a sin. If not properly done, any consultation on this matter would have people saying no where they should have said yes. So, the findings of the Law Commission may not fully represent the people’s feelings, especially in a society where illiteracy is high and contrary views are gagged.
Q: Are you faulting the spirit of consultation in the law-making processes?
: I am not faulting the consultation. I am only saying sometimes these consultations are done just to prove a particular point of view. On this law, people are too afraid to say the truth. Privately, many think this a progressive law. But publicly, they will denounce it to be seen to be culturally correct.
It is up to Parliament to do its role now. We have seen some Bills passed with speed. The Industrial Hemp Bill, it was approved without serious consultations. If they are concerned about the deaths of women due to unsafe abortion, then they can do what is right.
Q: Any word for the Tonse Alliance leadership on this issue?
: Now that Malawi is chairing Southern African Development Community [Sadc], the regional body has adopted a strategy on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). So, if you are chairing Sadc, you must follow what Sadc has put in place. Malawi has ratified the Sadc Protocol on Gender and Development, which has SRHR component. The leadership of this country should be looking at things in a holistic manner. Like we have told Parliamentarians, our leaders must represent all people, even those they do not agree with. The new leadership must embrace all people even those who hold contrary views.