They know women are dying in large numbers due to backstreet abortion which the Ministry of Health wanted ended when it petitioned the Law Commission to review the country’s colonial termination of pregnancy laws. However, they are not in a hurry to debate the commission’s recommendation to expand access to safe abortion.
Thursday last week was billed a big day in the movement to liberalise safe abortion as Chiradzulu West legislator Mathews Ngwale was set to table a motion for Parliament to discuss his Termination of Pregnancy Bill adopted from the Law Commission’s report.
However, Parliament erased the private members’ motion in favour of tackling “government business” on the day dedicated to individual lawmakers’ questions.
The removal of the motion from the day’s business of the House further delays the ammendment of penal laws which only allow abortion to save a woman’s life.
Health workers and activists say the colonial law pushes women and girls to terminate pregnancies clandestinely and dangerously outside hospitals.
For once, it appeared that the National Assembly had edged closer to tackle what many consider politically sensitive question.
However, the lawmakers, who spent Thursday deliberating financial allocations to various government establishments, postponed the motion despite passing the national budget.
Ngwale has won hearts of pro-choice campaigners for offering to present this motion for Parliament to discuss the motion many lawmakers shun.
The government froze the proposed law ammendments in 2016 when some religious groups marched to the House against the liberalisation of safe abortion.
As Parliament continued to do business as usual, some young people, chiefs and activists concerned about the burden of clandestine abortion were meeting at Bingu Convention Centre (Bicc) in the vicinity, phoning the lawmakers to support what they consider a life-saving Bill.
“We have spoken to MPs before on this matter. They know women and girls are dying. In my area, we have recently buried three women who died of unsafe abortion and my MP knows about it,” said Senior Chief Lukwa of Kasungu.
The Ministry of Health ranks secret abortions as the fourth killer of pregnant women, accounting for six to 18 in every 100 martenal deaths countrywide.
“We have statistics all over the country to support our call and MPs know about this,” said the chief.
The business at Bicc on the eve of the deferred crunch talks in Parliament included alarming figures of unsafe abortion in Malawi.
The Ministry of Health reports that almost 70 000 women induced abortion in 2009 even though the law inherited from Britain bans abortion except to preserve a woman’s life. The law prescribes jail terms of seven to 14 years for termination of pregnancy.
The lobbyists find these figures alarming, saying hospitals cannot continue spending millions on treating post-complications while Parliament continues to dilly-dally on the law reform.
“With all these statistics, I really do not see a reason why MPs would not want to discuss this motion. After all, we are not talking about free-for-all abortion but in case of rape, incest, defilement and where the life of a mother is in danger. Sexual violence remains common in the country. We need to change our archaic and restrictive abortion law,” says Senior Chief Mabilabo of Mzimba.
Ngwale’s motion seeks to trigger Parliament to scrutinise the recommendations of the Law Commission to increase exceptions to the law abandoned by Britain. However, it faces resistance even in the opposition benches where he sits.
“Mr. Deputy Speaker Sir,” an opposition member raised his voice just before lunch break “When we come back, let us continue with government business”.
The House of records exploded into an uproarious “hear, hear” from like-minded lawmakers as some few legislators chanted: “We need the safe abortion motion now”.
That is the politics slowing the law reform to increase access safe abortion and lower pregnancy-related deaths.
In the afternoon, the proposal to table the motion was blocked with no yes to second it.
And activists were denied permission to march to Parliament in support of the motion.
Mwanza Central legislator Nicholas Dausi likened the motion to debating the evils of murder, amplifying the stance of his Catholic Church which upholds that life begins at conception. Father Henry Saindi, spokesperson for the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, a grouping of Catholice Bishops says no State arm—the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive—has the right to take the life of the unborn.
However, the youth frustrated by the upset say the movement for safe abortion is neither a moral nor religious issue, but a public health push to save the lives of women and girls.
They too were blocked from displaying their placards within the Chinese-built Parliament Building, but they remained unfazed.
“They won’t intimidate us. We are here and we are going nowhere,” screamed Jessica Mandanda at the entrance to Parliament.
The marchers waved placards demanding the Women Caucus in Parliament to break its silence on the liberalisation of safe abortion.
Ngwale said he was not bothered with MPs’ unwillingness on the motion, including the indifference of the women’s bloc in the House.
“Well, the motion is still alive and will be presented later. MPs must allow and debate it. After the discussion, let the house decide,” he said.
Leader of the House Richard Chimwendo Banda says the government side had nothing to do with the public health question.
“Let the opposition decide because it is coming from them,” he said.
Ironically, it is the Ministry of Health which moved the Law Commission to review abortion laws after the 2009 study into the magnitude study of unsafe abortion.
We have asked Minister of Health Khumbize Chiponda to explain the ministry’s snowy stance on the law reform.
However, the trail of government’s sluggishness is not unusual.
In the past two decades, both the special law commissions on the review of the Penal Code and Gender Equality laws sidestepped the colonial abortion laws, calling for the standalone law reform hanging midair.
Gender activist Emma Kaliya is shocked that the governing alliance appears unconcerned.
She explains: “Those in government today once assured us they would support this cause. We reached out to most of them and we got that assurance.
“I am shocked that today they no longer have the interest to support this. This confirms that politicians cannot be trusted.”
Dr Godfrey Kangaude, a legal expert and a reproductive rights champion, says Parliament’s sluggishness could be a result of the popular view of abortion as an evil foreign agenda.
He says politicians shun the Termination of Pregnancy Bill because it is wrongly perceived.
The lawyer argues that Parliament is duty-bound to settle the debate over the controversial law reform.
He explains: “The Ministry of Health has done research, so did the law commission, but These two cannot make laws. This is where Parliament comes in. If the lawmakers refuse to discuss this, one would say parliament is failing Malawians. They should have examined the bill and helped find a solution to this problem.”
Youthful activist Chimwemwe Mlombwa, She Decides, was among the marchers seen at Parliament last Thursday.
She finds it strange that women MPs have kept a distance from “the matter that is supposed to be closer to them”.
She believes that the Women Caucus of Parliament should have been in the forefront, but Ngwale says only five are expressly on her side.
Mlombwa said: “I am surprised that the 43 women in Parliament did not see this as a maternal issue though women and girls are losing lives every single day”.
But Lonnie Chijere Phiri, chairperson of the Women Caucus, says she understands the activists’ frustration but it is a hasty generalisation to say women MPs do not support the motion.
“I know that some people are angry with us, but let me assure them that the motion will still come and yes will support it” said the MP for Zomba Chingale Constituency.