Malawi: Backstreet unsafe abortion killed my dear wife

While people have diverse views about abortion law reform, there is one Malawi man who after losing his dear wife to unsafe abortion wants the law reviewed immediately. KONDWANI MAGOMBO writes

Time heals – so they say. But if you said this anywhere near 46-year-old Humphrey Zembeni, a free advice is that you should start running. It’s almost four years now since Zembeni lost his wife due to unsafe abortion and time has failed to heal the wound his wife’s departure created.

Zembeni, who lost his sight at the age of two following a measles attack, hails from Kamwana Village, Traditional Authority Mazengera, in Lilongwe. His late wife, Eveless Mwafei Binson, was partially blind and she hailed from neighbouring Chiwondo Village, in the same area.

The two had five children between them whose mouths they fed with meager handouts the couple got after entertaining people in town with some music.

With Zembeni playing an improvised guitar, the wife playing an improvised drum and the children collecting the spoils, the Zembenis were a happy lot in their own right until death brutally robbed them of the drummer, wife and mother on May 10, 2013.

“We had realized that my wife was pregnant despite the contraceptives we were using and although we were not ready for a sixth child we agreed to keep the pregnancy,” Zembeni told this reporter who caught up with him in Lilongwe.

“But it appears that behind my back someone convinced my wife that some man in Nathenje could conduct an abortion on her and on 9th May 2013 as we were going to town for our usual performance my wife changed the route.”

Zembeni says when he queried, the wife said they were going to town alright except that they had taken a short cut.

The next thing he realized was that they had come to a certain house where a man’s voice welcomed them and Zembeni was told to stay on the verandah while his wife proceeded with the man into the house.

“I was left puzzled and I kept shouting ‘What are you doing with my wife in there?’ When she came out after about an hour she told me she had had an abortion and that we should go back home because the pain was unbearable.

“I was furious at the thought that I had been kept in the dark about the ordeal, and scared as to what would be the consequences of the act and true to my fears, that same night my wife’s condition worsened and we rushed her to Bwaila Hospital,” said Zembeni.

At Bwaila Hospital Zembeni’s wife was further referred to Kamuzu Central Hospital where she died the following day on May 10 apparently due to heavy loss of blood from a punctured womb and other internal injuries.

“We found a cassava stick rammed up into her birth canal and her condition when she arrived here was very hopeless,” a health worker at Bwaila Hospital recalled before this reporter.

Deaths resulting from backstreet abortion like Binson’s are on the rise in Malawi where, according to Mzuzu Central Hospital Director Dr. Frank Sinyiza, and as quoted in recent media reports, over 70, 000 women procure abortion and about half of them die because they undergo unsafe abortion.

A recent media tour to Nsanje District Hospital revealed a growing demand from girls and women seeking post abortion treatment from the facility and according to medical personnel at the Hospital, often times, the patients end up losing their uteruses due to severe damage.

Dominic Mnyontho, Clinical Officer at the facility and Margaret Alufandika, Nurse and Midwife Technician, told journalists during the tour that the hospital receives 8 – 11 cases of abortions every month.

Among these cases are school children like the 15-year-old Standard 8 girl (name withheld), whom journalists learned had had unsafe abortion that cost her uterus in the process.

“Cases of ruptured uteruses are not uncommon here due to the methods women and girls use to abort their pregnancies and sometimes the uterus becomes septic after the abortion such that retaining it becomes out of question,” explained Mnyontho.

A random look at the statistics of women storming the country’s health facilities in search for treatment after procuring unsafe abortion leaves one with a heavy heart.

Legislators who were sent on a fact-finding mission in selected hospitals in the country namely; Mwanza, Blantyre, Mangochi, Zomba, Karonga, Mzimba, Dedza, and Mchinji to appreciate the situation learned in November 2016 that Mzimba, for instance, reported 207 women with abortion related complications in its surgical ward between July and October 2016.

Additionally, earlier media reports quoted Lilongwe District Health Officer, Dr. Mwai Mwale, as saying Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe receives 800 abortion cases every month.

Elsewhere in Machinga, the District Hospital Medical Officer, Innocent Mhango, is on record to have said the facility registers 10 post abortion cases every day as reported in The Nation of 1st December 2016.

Behind all the shocking revelations, on how unsafe abortion is claiming the lives of women and girls, is the tag of war as to whether the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill (ToPB) should be tabled in Parliament and passed or not.

The proposed Bill was a result of the Malawi Law Commission Report on Review of Termination of Pregnancy Laws following a multi-sectoral consultation between 2012 and 2015.

The Penal Code under sections 149, 150, 151 and 243 prohibits termination of pregnancy except with intent to save a woman’s life, a provision the Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) and concerned civil society organizations describe as vague.

COPUA members argue that the current state of law does not give women the freedom of choice and that there is need to increase the grounds of the law to accommodate other conditions women find themselves in as regards pregnancy.

“Women and girls are dying because legally they cannot procure abortion and as a result they resort to unsafe abortion through use of herbs, sharp objects and other means that are generally dangerous to health,” explained COPUA member, Senior Chief Lukwa of Kasungu at a recent sensitization meeting in Lilongwe.

COPUA members also argue that the law in its current state marginalizes the poor who die in majority due to unsafe abortion as they cannot afford to procure particular medicines that terminate pregnancy while those who can afford often times survive.

With the proposed ToPB abortion still remains a crime except in situations where the pregnancy comes as a result of rape, incest, foetal malformation and where the life of the woman is in danger.

Various players among them Parliamentarians, lawyers, health practitioners, and the clergy continue to add their voices to COPUA’s call for the ToPB to be passed and enacted if the country is to save women and girls from unsafe abortion deaths.

At a networking meeting for Parliamentarians, religious and traditional leaders in Lilongwe in August 2016, Vice Chairperson for the Parliamentary Committee on Health, Victor Musowa, clearly urged Malawians to accept the enactment of the ToPB citing Ethiopia as an example where the law prevails.

Of great interest is also the clergy’s reasoning on the passing of the Bill as put by Rev. Cliff Nyekanyeka of the Central Church of African Presbyterian (CCAP) in the Blantyre Synod at an engagement meeting in Mzuzu where, as reported in The Sunday Times of May 29, 2016, he called for a sober approach to the issue.

“Men of God have for a while tackled problems by detaching themselves. Time is nigh for us who preach the gospel to be directly involved and put ourselves in a situation where we are directly affected,” Rev. Nyekanyeka is quoted.

“I want a scenario where we are not hypocritical; we should be objective enough. Let us not act as if we are already in heaven while on earth. We are part of the society and we have a responsibility to help our people.”

When all is said and done, it is, perhaps, Zembeni’s final word before he parted with this reporter that’s food for serious thought.

“If the law could offer choices to women on abortion, my wife could have been attended to by a certified medical person and at a certified health facility,” explains Zembeni, his fingers lazily plucking at the strings of his guitar in a low and mournful tone.

“She could be living today, complementing my guitar with her drums and taking care of the family.” – Malawi News Agency