Loud calls to reform Malawi’s abortion law

Mama Emma Kaliya urges Malawi to liberalise abortion law

Calls urging Malawi government to reform abortion laws are growing louder and louder.

Adding her voice to the growing calls, Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje recently appealed to Members of Parliament to seriously think about the thousands of lives of women and girls that are lost to unsafe abortion in Malawi every year.

The chief made the call in Blantyre recently during at an interface which drew together about 20 Members of Parliament, human rights activists, religious and traditional leaders.

Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ), Ipas Malawi, Family Planning Association and OPTIONS were among the organisations that convened the interface meeting.

Malawi has been sitting on the proposed abortion law since 2016 when the Malawi Law Commission released its report in which it recommended a new Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

In her statement, Chikumbu said the law was long overdue and there is no more excuses to delay in enacting a new law.

“We have been talking about this law for a long time now while our women and girls are dying from unsafe abortion. We cannot be talking about the need to consult our people today because the Law Commission made thorough consultations. Some of us have also explained it to our subjects over the years and they now understand what this law is about. I don’t understand what is delaying this law,” she said.

Women are suffering

Chikumbu told the MPs that she is tired of seeing women and girls suffering from unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion in her area.

Chikumbu gave another example of a disabled girl at one private school in Mulanje who fell pregnant following a rape. The girl ended up seeking an unsafe abortion which landed her in hospital for post-abortion care after she suffered complications.

“Please our MPs, help us! We see these cases every day and we are tired of this suffering of our girls and women,” she pleaded.

Time to act

Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Health Dr Mathews Ngwale echoed Chikumbu’s call, urging fellow MPs to remember that it is their responsibility to pass laws that benefit their people.

He said Malawi is reeling in the crisis of maternal mortalities one of whose leading causes is unsafe abortion which contributes 18 percent of maternal deaths in the country.

He said while other countries have passed progressive laws that prevent women and girls from dying from unsafe abortions; Malawi is still stuck with almost 100-year-old colonial law.

“We cannot continue to sit back and watch our women die from unsafe abortion because we did not pass a law that would have protected them. We need to rise and say in future that ‘I was one of those who stood up and checked the deaths of girls and women in Malawi from unsafe abortion’,” he said.

Ngwale added that unsafe abortion is a burden to society even though it happens in secret.

“These things happen away from our sight. But they come back into our society, into our homes, into our hospitals and into our lives in one way or another. We need to do something about it,” he said.

New law

Gynaecologist Dr Chisale Mhango cleared the misinterpretation that the new law legalizes abortion.

“That is not true. Abortion shall remain illegal in Malawi but what is being done is only to expand the factors upon which safe abortion can be performed which would lead to a reduction in unsafe abortion. The current law is restrictive on the factors, which is pushing women into seeking an unsafe abortion,” he said.

He explained that the current law permits safe abortion only where the life of the mother is threatened.

The proposed law adds that the termination of pregnancy may be performed by a certified health service provider:

  • if it is necessary to prevent injury to the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman;
  • if there is a severe malformation of the foetus which could affect the woman’s life; and
  • if the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest and defilement.

 Mhango also dismissed arguments that the new law would lead to abuse.

“Abuse by who? Women and doctors themselves do not enjoy terminating a pregnancy. It is only done when the situation is desperate,” he said.

He also argued against questions of morality or religious which some quarters have advanced against the passing of the bill.

He said while Malawi continues to bury its head in the sand, the fact is that women, including those that are married, are procuring unsafe abortion even in the presence of a law that criminalizes the practice.

“If the law does not serve its purpose, your reform it. That’s what was done by the Law Commission. The issue of abortion is not about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. It is about that women are suffering and dying from unsafe abortion and we must stop it,” he said.

The problem is big

Gender rights activist and chairperson of Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) Emma Kaliya underlined the seriousness of unsafe abortion in Malawi, warning that it cannot be wished away.

“Until it comes home to you, until it happens with your daughter, with your sister, your wife, your sister, you will never know how serious unsafe abortion means. This thing is real. Women and girls are suffering from life-long trauma from the unsafe abortion of unwanted pregnancies. Thousands are dying. We have a duty to save the lives of our women and girl children,” she said. 

Currently, over 141,000 women and girls in Malawi procure abortions. Due to restrictive law, most of them seek

On his part, Centre for Solutions Journalism director Brian Ligomeka said it was sad to note that men who do not get pregnant are the ones on the forefront of opposing abortion law reforms, instead of leaving women to add voices to the issue.

“It is a pity that those of us who have no wombs are the ones who assume have authority to make punitive laws about those who have wombs…. Issues of contraceptive use and terminations of unplanned pregnancies are about reproductive choices. Those wishing to access these services should do so freely without interference from anyone,” he said.

Ligomeka added: “Those who do not require such services should not block those who desperately need such services. The law should allow people to make choices according to their needs.”