Malawi Parliament has a huge task of guiding the nation on very crucial issues. This week, two issues were in the public domain and one of them will sooner rather than later need their seal. One is on the call to legalise industrial hemp farming while the other is on decriminalising abortion. While the former is still just a cry in the wilderness, the issue on decriminalising abortion is almost a done deal.
The first public call to decriminalise industrial hemp farming came from Ntchisi North Parliamentarian Boniface Kadzamira during the last sitting of Parliament. Kadzamira said the country stands to benefit from industrial hemp because it has medicinal properties, and that it is very different from the smoking hemp.
He said the industrial hemp being advocated is not the same hemp that has a bad name of making people mad when they smoke it, saying this particular one has very little percentages of THC, the substance responsible for making people get high when they smoke it. He said for one to get high after smoking industrial hemp, one would have to smoke a cigarette the size of an electric pole. I should say I like his sense of humour.
This week, a University of Malawi Professor Ben Kalua added his weight to the MP’s call to legalise industrial hemp and asked for the ‘‘de-politicisation of the hemp’’, locally known as chamba, saying industrial hemp [farming] has the potential to steer the country’s economy towards recovery. In 2014, the United States of America imported US$640 million worth of industrial hemp products from the 30 countries worldwide that legalise its farming.
The majority of social media commentators supported the call for the decriminalisation of industrial hemp farming. But the question is—if industrial hemp is not the same illicit weed we know that is widely grown in Nkhotakota north and Mzimba east—then perhaps it is a different kettle of fish altogether. For this reason, given its notoriety for making people high, and mad for those with soft brain, the country cannot just jump on legalising its farming.
Maybe the best government can do is to mandate the Ministry of Agriculture through its research institutions—Bvumbwe, Chitedze, Lunyangwa, and others—to pilot some research studies on this plant. For example, what weather patterns does it favour? What varieties would be best suited for Malawi? Is it already being grown elsewhere in the country—albeit illegally, et cetera?
And given that there is no political will to improve farming in Malawi as some people argue (Jumbe, The Nation July 22, 2015)—why should anyone believe that industrial hemp farming holds the key to the growth of the country’s economy? To this end, given its history, my gut feeling is that industrial hemp farming in Malawi will remain what it is—just a dream for God knows how long.
Now on the proposed abortion bill. The Special Commission on the Review of Abortion Law this week said it had recommended the promulgation of a Bill: the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. The bill advocates for liberalisation rather than discrimination of abortion. The Chairperson of the Commission, Justice Esme Chombo, says the recommendation is a true reflection of what Malawians have been looking for on the ground.
The current position is that abortion is illegal in Malawi except where it is performed to save the life of the pregnant woman through surgical operation. The law criminalises all acts of procuring or assisting in the procuring of miscarriage of a pregnant woman.
But the Commission says has scrapped wanton criminalisation of individuals procuring abortion after getting views from the Ministry of Health, Justice, Judiciary, Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Malawi Council of Churches, the Muslim Community and Traditional leaders, Malawi Law Society and the Malawi College of Medicine.
The background is that for a long time government has bemoaned the high prevalence of maternal mortality in the country and has identified unsafe abortions as one of the major contributing factors to the problem. The country’s maternal mortality rate is still high at 460 per 100,000 live births from 765 some two years ago.
The Commission says having considered all information and literature on matters of unsafe abortions, it has resolved that certain abortions should be permissible. Among the permissible ones is when abortion is procured to prevent injury to the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman; where pregnancy endangers the life of a woman, where pregnancy is a result of incest and defilement; and has resulted into severe malfunction of the foetus which will affect its viability. According to the Commission, 77,000 women procure abortion yearly, and 17 percent of maternal mortality in Malawi is a result of unsafe abortion.
In Africa abortion is legal in Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Tunisia, Cape Verde Ghana, among others.
The majority of comments from members of the public on social media are negative. They range from ‘Satanic’, ‘This is murder’, ‘Punishable in the presence of God’, ‘Those who agree are stupid’, ‘God told Adam and Eve to subdue the world’, ‘This is selfishness’, ‘Sin is in the sex not pregnancy’, ‘Stop discussing legalising abortion or just legalise chamba’. There were just as many anti-abortion comments on a phone-in radio programme I listened to.
The next step is to table the Bill in Parliament. My intuition is that it will make the day. My understanding is that there is a disjoint between social media commentators and phone-in radio participants on one hand, and policy makers on the other. The latter usually carry the day. But even if that were so, the best way forward is for the Special Law Commission to lobby Members of Parliament before taking the Bill to Parliament. I also expect that since women are key stakeholders on the issue, the Commission will enlist the support of female gender activists for the smooth passing of the Bill into lawFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :