Rape and deaths from unsafe abortion – Malawi’s horrifying injustices

Statistics from Malawi Police Services - Annual Reports- show that the number of reported cases of rape and defilement remains unacceptably high

The death of a 16-year-old girl following rape by a Kabaza (motorcycle taxi) operator, as reported by The Daily Times on February 5, 2024, calls for deep reflection and decisive action on Malawi’s outdated abortion laws and how we are addressing gender-based violence.

Following the brutal rape, she became pregnant. She was not ready to keep the forced pregnancy, and after several failed attempts to get medical assistance, she died tragically following an unsafe abortion.

Her death is a sad tale of retaining archaic laws enacted in 1930 by colonialists and of  Malawi’s failure to reform its abortion law. If the same incident happened in neighbouring Zambia, Mozambique or Zimbabwe, the girl would have been alive today because all these countries legally allow survivors of rape to access safe abortion.

There are several injustices at play in this incident, including the gravity of sexual violence that led to the unwanted pregnancy. The girl was raped. The Penal Code in Malawi lists rape under “Offences against morality” (chapter XV) with the following punishment: “Any person who commits the offence of rape shall be liable to be punished with death or with imprisonment for life.”

Whilst I do not condone the death penalty, it is clear that the act of rape is a serious crime, at least in theory.

But what happens in practice?

Violence against women and girls in Malawi is a lived reality, and sexual violence is no exception.

One national survey conducted as far back as 2013 indicated that sexual, physical and emotional violence against children is prevalent in Malawi, and, for many girls, their first sexual encounter is unwanted.

Violence is exacerbated by gender biases, norms and attitudes whereby violence is socially and culturally legitimised. Sexual violence is further complicated when being ‘male’ means dominance and control, whilst being ‘female’ comes with the expectation that one should be submissive and not say no to sex.

Many of our cultural practices and rites of passage perpetuate these power imbalances and gender inequalities. Despite the law prohibiting marriage before 18, forced child marriages are pervasive.  And despite the provisions in the penal code, there seems to be ambiguity around the meaning and severity of sexual violence. We do not know whether the Kabaza operator ever faced justice for the crime he committed – the rape of a young woman, which led directly to her death by unsafe abortion.

In November 2023, we commemorated the annual 16 days of activism against gender-based violence under the theme “UNITE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”, yet incidents of gender-based violence are stubbornly persistent.

How are we doing as a country to prevent and address violence against women and girls?

The second injustice is that even though the law allows pregnant women whose lives are at risk to terminate their pregnancy, they are often denied access to safe abortion. Women and girls who become pregnant after rape and in desperate need of help, are  turned away from health facilities as this case shows – and often there is nowhere else for the traumatized girls and women to turn.   Pregnancy is risky, more especially child pregnancies and abortion-related complications are a significant contributor to maternal deaths.  Had the 16-year-old girl been able to access a safe abortion, which many of Malawi’s health workers can legally perform, she would have lived.

The current abortion law, a remnant from pre-colonial days, is ambiguous.  As a result of this ambiguity, it is easier for a health worker to deny the service than to risk criminal sanction by performing a safe abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life. So, those seeking lifesaving abortions, including girls, are tragically told that it is against the law and turned away.

One study undertaken by the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (KUHeS) explored the experiences of child rape survivors. The findings presented to the Ministry of Health in 2022 showed that survivors face embarrassment, fear, blame, and stigma. Rape and subsequent pregnancies crush girls’ dreams and abruptly end education with lifelong consequences. Some girls become suicidal. The few who seek justice are allegedly mocked by police, and face lengthy court delays, while the rapists are often set free with the risk that they could commit further crimes.

Reading the story of a needless and preventable death, we must ask ourselves, “What if that was me, my friend, my wife, my daughter, my niece, my cousin?”.  We need to have these tricky, uncomfortable, and unsettling conversations with sons, daughters, parents, uncles, and aunts; with friends; among faith communities; at school; in the media; and parliament.  Open conversations may help address and overcome the taboo, stigma and blame associated with sexually related violations, including opposition when it comes to abortion.

It is time to be bold and to start tackling, head-on, these injustices so that we can do away with the traumatic, devastating, and harmful crimes of sexual violence and other criminal acts perpetrated against women and girls. We need to unravel the layers of hypocrisy and fear surrounding abortion and allow women and girls the right to defend and choose what happens to their bodies.

In 2021, Parliamentary Health Committee Chairperson Dr Matthews Ngwale courageously pursued a private members route to discuss the Termination of Pregnancy (TOP) Bill.  If MPs had supported this TOP Bill motion, which could have led to abortion law reform, the girl would have been alive today.

How many more injustices will it take for concrete action and urgent reforms?

The Author

Ms Wina T. Sangala is a sexual and reproductive health and rights champion based in the Malawi capital, Lilongwe and has written this opinion in her personal capacity.