Malawi medics, activists push govt. to review abortion laws

A strong call has gone out to Malawi government authorities to immediately consider reviewing the country’s existing restrictive abortion laws to save lives of women and girls mostly from poor families who are dying to due to complications from unsafe abortion services sought from untrained people in their neighborhoods.

The call was made Tuesday night during a live debate aired on local private radio Zodiak Broadcasting Service sponsored by the a pro-safe abortion group the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA ) held at Crossroads Hotel in the capital Lilongwe.

Panelists during the debate whose topic was “Unsafe abortion in Malawi: What are we doing about it”, were a renowned gynecologist Dr Edgar Kuchingale who is also the president of the Medical Association of Malawi as well as a principal investigator of a research on Magnitude of Unsafe Abortions held in Malawi in 2010, Dr Grace Mary Chiudzu, Chief obstetrician and Gynecologist and Kamuzu Central Hospital one of Malawi’s referral medical facilities.

Others were Mercy Mankhambera Capacity Development Manager at Malawi Human Right Resource Centre and Chripine Sibande a human rights lawyer who is National Coordinator for COPUA.

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Kabwila: Malawi men tends to treat women as infants strike.

Kuchingale took time painting a gloomy picture of magnitude of death of women in Malawi due to unsafe abortion. He said the findings of the research he headed in 2010 revealed that almost all women who have had carried an abortion were from all sections of the society regardless of religious, cultural background or marital status.

“The research showed that 80 percent of all women who have had an abortion were those who were married or had strong marital relationships. And the research also showed that most women in the country do not use contraceptives with only 44 percent use contraceptives. Out these 44 percent only 42 percent were the ones who adhere to use of modern contraceptives while the rest were using the traditional methods of family planning, ” he said.

Kuchingale also said the research also show that most women who lost lives due to unsafe abortions are poor women mostly from rural areas. He said statistics show that between 10 and 12 women die every day country wide due to maternal complications.

“And as we are conducting this debate tonight between 10 and 12 women have gone to the graves but more sadly 2 or 3 of them have died due to unsafe abortion. But these deaths were not know to you who are here because their families are not rich or their parents are not famous they are the poor people. But if it was my daughter you could have heard about it but these are poor people who don’t have a name in the society,” he said.

Kuchingale said those who are rich do not die due to unsafe abortion because they have their own means of soliciting safe abortion services somewhere while those who don’t have the money end up dying due to complications from unsafe abortion saying this is so because of the restrictive laws on abortions the country has.

Currently abortion in Malawi is only restricted to mothers whose life would be in danger if allowed to carry on with the pregnancy up to the time of delivery. Except under such circumstances, abortion is generally punishable by law.

Kuchingale said there is great need for the country to immediately revisit the laws to save the lives of those who are continuing dying due to unsafe abortion

“The most worrying thing is that it is now almost four years since we conducted the magnitude study on unsafe abortion but over the year more and more women are dying on daily basis due to unsafe abortion.

“And if we would multiply the days we may reach at 1000 days. So if we would multiply 1000 days by 12 we can see that between 12, 000  women have already died before we find a concrete solution to end the death of women from unsafe abortion. And as we are discussing here, tomorrow other 12 or 10 women will die due to unsafe abortion just because they are poor”

However human rights lawyer Sibande clarified abortion in Malawi is legal only it is restricted to certain groups of women and this is where the problem is.

He also said another problem is that the abortion laws which the country is using were drafted by the British in 1861 and imposed on Malawi in 1930 adding that they  are not only clear on many aspects but also were abandoned by the British themselves many years ago.

“The question we should be asking ourselves now is; why are we still clinging to the legislation which was imposed on us while the owners abandoned it?  Britain, America, Finland and Norway  changed  their abortion laws way back in 1960s and as Kuchingale has already put it the existing law is not helping Malawians because it doesn’t explain how people would access abortion services in public hospitals,”.

However, Dr Chiudzu said that Malawi public hospitals only carry out abortions only if the pregnancy threatens the life of a mother or treat post abortion complications or emergency contraception which prevents women from falling pregnant.

She however said it is high time Malawi should look into the issue of softening the abortion laws to cater for a wider section of women who may need professional abortion services in hospitals to prevent incidences of post-abortion complications which are infesting public hospitals.

On the other hand, Mankhambera said although her organization Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre  do offer family planning services to Malawians including youths, the issue of liberalizing abortion laws is paramount in ensuring that lives of women are saved.

She concurred with fellow panelists that there was need for the government to consider finding ways of addressing the cause of deaths that come due to unsafe abortion.

Whether it was by design, critics said the debate lacked critical minds that would counter argue the contributions from the four panelists,

Just  few participants  argued that instead of pushing for open laws on abortion the country should instead intensify its family planning initiatives unlike giving women a license to start killing unborn  babies openly.

The strongest opposition views were however from listeners mostly men who contributed through text messages read out by the debate moderator Owen Lupesya who trashed the call for liberalized abortion laws saying this was the work of the devil.

“Abortion is evil and it should not be tolerated in Malawi”, read one text among many who spoke against the open abortion laws. And another contributor said “There is nothing like unsafe abortion, a baby is strangled to death, no one advocate for their right to life, the panel is biased they are all advocating for abortion.”

But this did not go down well with an activist Jessie Kabwila who accused men of ‘infantilisation’, saying Malawi men tends to treat women as infants and prefer doing things on their behalf.

Kabwila, a lecturer at University of Malaiw’s Chancellor College,therefore asked men to keep away from abortion debate, saying it was none of their concern because they do not feel the pinch of carrying pregnancy.

“As Malawians, let us treat each other as equals. Let’s both men and women enjoy Malawi on equal footing. We are not children of this state; we are full independent human beings who should enjoy self-hood to the full,” she said.

The panelists however concluded by urging Malawians to critically look into the issue and contribute positively  towards efforts that would help reduce deaths caused by unsafe abortion in the country.

Currently African countries that have liberalized or legalized abortion include Zambia, South Africa Ethiopia and Kenya.

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