The five months between March and October 2020 that public schools were closed due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic saw many teenage girls getting unplanned pregnancies.
One of them was a girl disguised as Mellia, 15, a Form One student from Traditional Authority Mlumbe in Zomba who was unwittingly involved with a married father of two children.
Although he accepted responsibility for the pregnancy, the older man soon left her without hope for support for the pregnancy and the unborn baby.
Accordingly, both her mental and physical wellbeing started to decline. She was suicidal.
Her family then resorted to terminating the pregnancy to save her life; and they took her to the One Stop Centre at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre to have the procedure.
Unfortunately, she was denied the service, with abortion being illegal in the country according to Sections 149, 150, and 151 of the Penal Code; with only Section 243 of making it exceptional where the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life.
However, the family felt that this was unfair as terminating the pregnancy was necessary following the threat to Mellia’s mental and physical well-being.
In a written response, SheDecides communications officer Chimwemwe Mlombwa, while describing the current law on abortion as restrictive, deems that it denies vulnerable girls such as Mellia access to safe abortions, which is a reproductive health right.
“The current restrictive abortion law was enacted in 1930 and it not only reflects ancient medical technologies and practices but also does not represent the commitments the Government of Malawi has made regarding reproductive health and rights,” she explains.
The restrictive abortion law in the country forces women and girls to continue to have unsafe abortions; with Ministry of Health estimates indicating that six to 18 percent of maternal deaths in the country result from complications from unsafe abortions.
In a telephone interview, Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe says the onus is on Parliament to pass the Termination of Pregnancy (ToP) Bill, arguing that the ministry completed all the necessary consultations with experts and stakeholders.
He says: “With termination of pregnancy still illegal in Malawi, many women end up procuring unsafe abortions. About 70 000 women are having abortions annually, out of which 33 000 are unsafe abortions and they come back to the health facilities with complications.
“So, we feel that passing the ToP Bill will mean that the women who decide against keeping their pregnancies will be able to access safe [abortion] services and thereby will reduce the number of people dying from complications that result from unsafe abortions.”
The ministry estimates that a liberalised abortion law and access to safe abortion in the country’s public health facilities would reduce post abortion care by 20-30 percent.
However, over the years the ToP Bill has faced resistance in Parliament and twice this year, it has been withdrawn from the order paper.
In line with this, Alliance for Youth Sexual, Reproductive and Health Rights (SRHR) organisations (AYSO) national coordinator Prisca Kumsida calls for increased advocacy around the Bill.
She, therefore, feels that the delay in tabling it in Parliament will allow the activists more time to popularise the Bill.
Says Kumsida: “Many people still don’t understand the Bill and don’t see the need for it. So, our role as advocates is to reach out to those people and ensure that they understand what it says. The bill does not stand a chance of being approved in parliament if it is not understood.”
On his part, Parliamentary Committee on Health chairperson Matthews Ngwale vows to bring the bill back to parliament.
He contends that the laws of the land are changed by the people of the land, and that currently stakeholders are the ones recommending what they have seen elsewhere and fighting for the same for people in the grassroots.
“We need to civic educate people—especially women as the ones involved—for them to see and understand what the problem is and the solutions. Women do not have to die. Once they have that picture, they will see the importance of this law and will push members of Parliament [MPs] in their areas to change it. When MPs are pushed by their people, they will not hesitate to do it,” Ngwale says.
He further cites that once people start petitioning Parliament; MPs in their own areas and District Commissioners in their districts, he [as chairperson for the health committee of parliament] will know that it is time to take the bill back to parliament.
The ToP Bill seeks to increase the grounds for procuring an abortion legally and make it safe if the pregnancy is due to sexual gender-based violence, incest or is a threat to the woman’s mental health and physical well-being.