Parliamentary Committee on Health chairperson Mathews Ngwale has announced plans to table the Termination of Pregnancy Bill in the current sitting of Parliament underway in Lilongwe. Our Features Editor JAMES CHAVULA caught up with the law maker.
Abortion in Malawi remains a sticky issue, what is the big issue with the private member Bill you plan to table in Parliament?
There are lots of women who are dying from pregnancy-related complications. If they were allowed to go to hospital and terminate pregnancy with the help of skilled health workers, most of them wouldn’t die. However, the current laws are preventing women from going to hospital to seek safe termination of pregnancy and medical care. Why? If they are discovered to have had an abortion, they can be jailed for seven to 14 years. Even those who assist them also risk being jailed. Due to this, people are doing it secretly and lots of deadly complications are happening in that secrecy. Some women die, some get very sick, other incur disabilities and yet others have their wombs destroyed, meaning they can never give birth again. The complications are many and scary.
In all this, what is your role as a lawmaker?
I feel duty-bound as a Member of Parliament [MP] to move the Bill to stop these preventable deaths. As legislators, we have a duty to protect our people and unsafe abortion. According to the magnitude study by the Ministry of Health, it kills up to 18 in 100 Malawian women dying of pregnancy-related conditions. This has been neglected needlessly. Get me right: We are not going to introduce a new law. The law is already there, but it is restrictive. We are simply saying let us expand the grounds for safe abortion and I think there is nothing wrong with doing this to save women. The Bill will be presented in Parliament for people to debate and make a decision. Should Parliament decide to include new grounds, we shall have the law.
Since 2012, the nation has spent almost a decade debating the Law Commission recommendations published in 2015. Is the private Bill not a vote of no confidence in the government-led law reform which pro-choice activists describe as sluggish?
It is not a vote of no confidence. Actually, it is a vote of confidence because the Bill legitimises the findings and recommendations of the Special Law Commission on the Review of Abortion Laws. Mindset change takes many years and people have been debating this in and outside the corridors of power for over five years. However, it never reached a point where the Bill was presented in Parliament. This will be the first time. As such, it is a vote of confidence in what has been debated for many years and now many Malawians are beginning to agree that this is a necessity.
How do you feel that this process has taken over 10 years since commissioners who were reviewing the Penal Code and gender laws recommended a standalone law regulating termination of pregnancy in Malawi?
I feel that is growth. Change does not happen overnight. People have debated the law and now Parliament has to decide whether to protect women or to let them continue dying from unsafe abortion. Clearly, Malawians are beginning to think outside the box. Recently, we had the controversial Medicinal Cannabis Bill. We debated it for years and eventually, we passed it into law. We passed the law on charcoal; we debated it and resolved that we need to control the charcoal industry to protect trees. This time, we have a health issue, we have debated it for years and we have come of age to decide the future of women at risk of dying in secrecy if we don’t.
Most politicians have kept their hands off this Bill, with some fearing that they may lose votes. Are you not afraid of advancing this agenda in a country which markets itself as God-fearing?
I am not afraid. I don’t think it is about me as MP advancing this law reform. This issue is already there. It is a government thing. It is the Ministry of Health which initiated the law reform to reduce the magnitude and costs of abortion. All I am doing as the chairperson of the Health Committee of Parliament is to present it in the House for debate. There are lots of stakeholders who are interested in this and they are all in support of this, so I cannot lose my position for advancing a health issue to protect women and girls. Of course, many politicians have feared doing what we are about because previous governments have never wanted to associate themselves with this. However, as an MP, I am taking the Bill to Parliament for all legislators to consider, without fear, if we can continue looking away while women die of preventable complications. It will be a secret ballot, so people will not know whether an MP voted yes or no.
In 2016, some religious groups marched against the tabling of the Bill in Parliament. Are you not afraid to be associated with what they called ‘a culture of death’?
Religious people have a right to do what they want to do. We respect their rights and we expect everyone to have a say on the proposed law, but we are not saying that we are going to be killing or forcing women to terminate pregnancy. No one will carry a microphone, rallying women and girls to go and procure abortions. Abortion will still be illegal. Nothing will change in terms of the legality of abortions. We are only expanding the grounds for safe abortions. The proposed grounds are not new, but the same ones recommended by the Law Commission following nationwide consultations. I want to see a Malawi where women have more rights—a Malawi where women will be able to decide whether to keep a pregnancy or not by themselves, not because someone says they should. Currently, the Malawian woman is being forced to keep a pregnancy and women are being forced to drop out of school because of pregnancies when they don’t have to, women are being expelled from work when they shouldn’t and women are being forced to keep children resulting from rape, defilement and incest when they want to forget the traumatising attacks. This needs to change.