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Calls for legalised abortion in Malawi

 Street News Service 30 May 2019

Women’s rights campaigners in Malawi are pushing for a review of abortion laws. Currently, only pregnant mothers whose lives are in danger can seek abortion services. Activists say the laws need to be liberalised since they infringe the women's right to choose. But the government and some religious groups oppose the initiative. (1512 Words) - By Lameck Masina

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SNS_Rights campaigners push for open abortion laws 1

Women in rural Malawi in the southern district of Chiradzulu, about 20km west of Blantyre.Photo: Lameck Masina

SNS_Rights campaigners push for open abortion laws 2

David Odali ED for Umunthu foundation. Photo: Lameck Masina


Abortion is a subject people in Malawi rarely discuss in public. This is largely because of the sensitivity of the topic and the stigma that goes with it. In remote areas is often regarded as a taboo.

Therefore, pinning down a woman who underwent an abortion for an interview is extremely hard. But after several rejections, I finally managed to find someone to talk to.

She lives in the area known as Safarao, one of the squalor areas of Ndirande township in the Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre.

She looked composed as she ushered into a one roomed house, but hesitant to talk about the subject. Due to the shame and penalty that comes with it she preferred to remain anonymous. For reference purposes she agreed to be referred to as Rose.

"It was in 1994", she started reluctantly, and then stopped.  After a convincing word or two she went on: "That was when my boyfriend denied responsibility for the pregnancy. So, I had no choice but to seek a backstreet abortion service from a herbalist who gave me a concoction of herbs to terminate the three-month pregnancy. I wanted to proceed with my education and also was too young to have a baby. I was only sixteen."

Two days after taking the concoction, Rose started experiencing severe pains in her stomach. Still horrified, she recalls the moment the cramps became unbearable: "The pain intensified three days later. I couldn't walk and I lost all my appetite. When I began bleeding heavily through my private parts, I realised that my life was in danger."

Rose alarmed relatives, who rushed her to the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital - the country's referral hospital in Blantyre. "I didn't tell the doctors at the gynecology ward what happened. When they discovered that I had undergone an unsafe abortion they started shouting at me. Eventually they assisted me and looked after me." She was supported until she was well enough to go back to school.

Infertility and death risks

Rose is one of the lucky women in Malawi who have survived a back street abortion. Many victims suffer infertility after unsupervised surgery, while some have lost their lives trying to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Health officials say abortion complications are among leading contributing factors towards the rise in maternal mortality in Malawi's hospitals. Recent studies by the Family Planning Research Trust show that post-abortion complications in school age girls account for between 16 and 40 per cent of admissions to gynecological wards in public hospitals.

On a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 19 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide each year, killing 70,000 women. WHO reports show that most of these deaths occur in poor countries with restrictive abortion laws, such as Malawi.

Following these alarming figures, Malawian human rights campaigners are now pushing for a review of the current abortion laws, which only allow pregnant mothers whose lives are in danger to seek abortion services.

Among the campaigners are advocacy groups Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) and Research Trust - Malawi Chapter, whose National Coordinator, Seode White says the law infringes upon the rights of women: "What we are doing at the moment is to see to what extent we can engage policy makers to ensure that we open up the law and allow safe abortion for all women. We need this, because in this country a lot of women are dying".

Prison sentence

Abortion is currently also an offence in Malawi according to the country's penal code. Section 149 of the country's penal code penalizes any person who administers abortion to 14 years imprisonment, while any woman who solicits an abortion is liable to seven years in prison.

Recently, the police in the central district of Dowa arrested a 14 year old girl at Dzaleka refugee camp. The teenager had undergone an abortion after getting the anti-abortion herbs from her boyfriend. Both the boy and the girl were given police bail and are yet to appear in court.

It is situations like these that White wants to change. "Abortion in a very sensitive subject here, and it also borders on the issues of the religion. But that is no excuse- we are more concerned about the lives of girls who can die due to unsafe abortions. We consider ourselves an organisation that speaks on behalf of poor, voiceless and excluded women who are unnecessarily suffering."

License to sleep around?

However, not everyone in the predominantly Christian country is yet convinced of the need for more liberal abortion laws. David Odali, executive director of local human rights organisation Umunthu Foundation, says liberalizing abortion laws is tantamount to give people "a license to sleep around", which would eventually lead to an increase in HIV transmission.

"There is a great danger in liberalising abortion laws. Most people who get abortions are women and girls who have got their pregnancies through their deliberate bad behaviors. They don't want to have children, so they wish they abort them. If we have an open on abortion, this would be subject to abuse because these women that are willingly getting pregnant will continue doing so knowing that once they are pregnant they have the option to end it", Odali argues.

Shocking scenes

A visit to the sewerage in Blantyre is a hard reality check. Charles Limbe  is administration manager at the Zingwangwa Sewerage, which is run by Blantyre City Council. He reports of the shocking scenes his staff regularly encounter when performing checks on blocked sewer pipes.

"Sometimes they find fetuses and unfortunately also newly born dead infants. Whenever we see anything like this, we always consult the police straight away to carry out an investigation", he says. Limbi says his team's shocking findings confirm that backstreet abortion is a reality in the country, with women carrying out illegal abortions in private and disposing the fetuses into the manhole - a huge sewer pipe leading to the sewerage.

Supporting the poor

Women's rights activist White says the fight is about the rights of poor, rural girls like Rose and other women who don't have money to seek safe abortion services from private hospitals."Young girls engage in unsafe sex because when you are young your level of analysis about your own life is very minimal. As a result, they go to a backstreet clinic and get a very poor service. Some of them die and others end up not being able to have babies ever again", she says.

Bit within the poor townships of Blantyre opinion is divided. "Abortion should be liberalised, because it is the safest way of preventing women from having unprepared pregnancies, especially when contraception fails", says Chiyamiko Chilundu a mother four from Chilobwe Township in Blantyre. But another resident, Agnes Malunga, said the worst thing she could expect from the government is liberalising abortion laws, which she believes is "similar to legalising murder".

Sin or safety measure?

Most traditional and religious leaders in Malawi consider abortion a sin. Although they acknowledge the current situation with illegal abortions is often dangerous, they still feel there are no grounds for legalising it.

General Secretary for the Synod of Blantyre for the Churches of Central African Presbyterian, CCAP, says abortion is "not good for both the mother and the child".

"The Bible tells us the point at which life begins. For example when Rebecca, the wife of Abraham, was pregnant with Esau and Jacob, they were fighting in the womb. We can read this in Genesis. God has designed that one should be born and no one should take that life away because that is murder", he says.

Officials in the Ministry of Health are reluctant to release figures on the number of backstreet abortions. After much pressure, an official told us that unsafe abortion accounts for nearly a quarter of maternal deaths in the country's hospitals. Other statistics show that the maternal mortality rate in Malawi is currently at 804 per 100,000 live births- one of the highest rates in Africa.

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, Henry Chimbali, says the government has done an assessment on the magnitude of the unsafe abortion cases. His department has just completed a study to establish the costs of treatment and care for women who have undergone unsafe abortion.

According to Chimbali, legalising abortion is "not an immediate response" to the rise of maternal deaths and the increasing risks women are putting themselves under. "It's too early to start pushing for legal abortion right now. Let's first wait for the findings of the study, because this is what will inform us on our next course of action." Chimbali says the study findings will be ready "in a month or two", but already warns that "I don't think legal abortion will be an option."

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