NGO urges Malawi to end unsafe abortions through law reform

Participants who attended Faith Leaders Training organised by Centre for Solutions Journalism in Mangochi on December 19-20, 2019

The government of Malawi must enact and implement laws aimed at ending child marriages, sexual violence and deaths from unsafe abortions, a local reproductive health NGO has said.

Centre for Solutions Journalism Board Chairperson Rev. Fr. Martin Kalimbe made the observation on Thursday during the sensitization meeting for faith leaders on the Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

Kalimbe urged faith leaders to reflect soberly on the proposed Termination of Pregnancy (T.O.P) Bill so that when arms of government are enacting it faith leaders can comment on it from an informed position.

“We need to realise that the government through the Law Commission has drafted the Termination of Pregnancy Bill as part of reducing maternal deaths. We need to understand that the proposed law prohibits abortion on demand. Abortion will only be provided on justifiable grounds.

“Sometimes, we, religious leaders, behave as if we are already in heaven by ignoring the harsh realities facing our members. We need to start acknowledging that some of our church members engage in pre-marital and extra-marital affairs. Some end up with unplanned pregnancies and some end up procuring unsafe abortions. Sadly, some die due to unsafe abortions,” he said.

Kalimbe reminded the participants church leaders were among those who drafted and approved the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill.

“We must remember that some of the commissioners who drafted and approved the proposed law were from Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Malawi Council of Churches and Muslim Association of Malawi. They were representing us,” he explained.

The proposed law

In her presentation to the participants, lawyer Juliet Sibale said currently abortion is only legal when it is performed to save the pregnant woman whose life is in danger through a surgical operation.

“It was important to review the law because nowadays most abortions are conducted using other means such as pill,” she said.

According to Sibale, criminalizing abortion has failed to achieve its intention of stopping women from terminating unplanned pregnancies.

“The current restrictive law has failed to stop abortions as over 141,000 women and girls procure abortions in Malawi every year. What the current law has done is to force women to seek services from herbalists where they suffer various complications,” she said.

Sibale said the Law Commission has proposed conditional relaxation of the restrictions to cater for certain justifiable instances where termination of pregnancy should permissible.

The proposed law says termination of a pregnancy may be performed by a certified health service provider where he or she is of the opinion, in good faith, that—

(a) the continued pregnancy will endanger the life of a pregnant woman;

(b) the termination of pregnancy is necessary to prevent  injury to the physical or mental  health of a pregnant woman;

 (c)  there is severe malformation  of the foetus which will affect its viability or compatibility with life; or

(d)  the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or defilement:  Provided that the incident of rape, incest or defilement has been reported to Police, and that the pregnancy has not exceeded sixteen (16) weeks from the date of conception.

The proposed law has some restrictions highlighted such as: “In forming the opinion….the certified health service provider shall not take into account socio-economic circumstances of the pregnant woman.”

Another restriction reads, “termination of pregnancy shall not be performed on demand or for any other reason.”

The problem

Malawi has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios, currently estimated at 439 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

According to research by the University of Malawi College of Medicine and Guttmacher Institute estimates, unsafe abortions account for up to 18 percent of all maternal deaths.

The research reveals that over 141,000 women and girls engage in risky clandestine abortions annually.

Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ) executive director Brian Ligomeka said the training was part of a project titled Faith, Abortion and Women Rights the organization is implementing with support from AmplifyChange.

CSJ organized the training to empower faith leaders with knowledge on the key contents of the proposed law and why it is necessary to enact it.

Ligomeka said besides abortion law reform, other areas requiring urgent interventions and upscaling are sexuality education, upscaling of family planning, provision of adolescent sexual and reproductive health services and post-abortion care services.

Church ministers from various denomination including the Roman Catholic, Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP), Anglican, Muslim Community, Malawi Assemblies of God and several Pentecostal ministries attended the two-day training held in eastern Malawi’s town of Mangochi.