Malawi’s abortion laws deny women their reproductive health rights on a large scale and that the women bear a disproportionate burden resulting in high rates of unsafe abortions (unplanned and unwanted pregnancies).
Grace Tikambenji Malera, Executive Secretary for the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) made the observation during a media workshop on unsafe abortion held at Ku Chawe Sunbird in the old capital, Zomba from November 7-8, 2011.
With funding from Ipas, the workshop was organized by the Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA), a not-for-profit network of Malawian non-governmental and civil society organisations, associations and individuals whose primary goal is to work with the government and other stakeholders in the efforts to reduce the incidence of maternal mortality and morbidity due to unsafe abortion.
Ipas is a US-based organization that works to end deaths and injuries from unsafe abortion. Ipas trains health-care providers to improve health services, promote appropriate reproductive-health technologies and works with policymakers and advocates to improve health policies and practices.
According to Malera, the law regulating termination of pregnancy is contained under sections 149 to 151 n chapter 15 of the penal code part that covers ‘Offences Against Morality’.
Under section 149, it is provided that any person who, with intent to procure a miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or not with child, unlawfully administers to her or causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, shall be guilty of an a felony, and shall be liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.
Under section 150, any woman, who being with child, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, or permits any such thing or means to be administered or used to her, shall be guilty of a felony and shall be liable to imprisonment for seven years.
While section 151 stipulates that any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person anything whatever, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with child, shall be guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment for three years.
“Section 149 imposes a sentence of 14 years imprisonment; in practice, service providers are rarely targeted in enforcement of the law; similarly men are left out (yet in some cases women and girls are forced/persuaded or threatened to abort; the law is therefore disproportionately applied against women and the law is therefore discriminatory,” Malera said.
She said the Section 151 the law is discriminatory on the basis of gender and that it is also discriminatory on the basis of social status (invariably poor women are the ones that are prone to prosecutions on abortion-related charges, as they cannot afford the services of private providers that are usually removed from the law enforcement agencies).
The MHRC head said Malawi’s law on abortion is restrictive and the implications are that it generally criminalizes abortions, except where the abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother; it does not provide for a legal abortion in cases of sexual assault such as rape, defilement or make it explicit that where the pregnancy endangers the mental or physical health of the mother or the life of the foetus.
“In Malawi induced abortion is restricted by law to circumstances where it is performed to preserve the pregnant woman’s life. Despite restrictions on induced abortions, women in Malawi continue to seek induced abortion for various reasons including poverty, unplanned pregnancy, coercion, fear of being forced out of school and shame.
“In a restrictive environment, such as Malawi, women turn to unsafe induced abortion to manage unwanted pregnancy,” she noted.
Malera disclosed that MRHC is currently carrying out consultations and advocacy work to ensure that the abortion law is reviewed and reformed to the point where abortion is wholly legalized like the case is in other countries, notably Zambia.
Chairperson of COPUA media taskforce, Brian Ligomeka urged on journalists to report actively on abortion to help lobbying authorities to change the abortion law, which he said was enacted during the colonial days.
According to Ligomeka, who is also editor for The Daily Times, COPUA’s main objectives include to advocate for reform of abortion laws and policies in order to expand access to safe abortion; to advocate for expanded access to safe abortion within the current law and policy; to create awareness within the society about the need to increase women’s access to safe, legal abortion as essential for reduction of unsafe abortions; and to share information with one another related to the advocacy cause.
Other facilitators at the workshop included Kirsten Sherk, a senior associate and media relations officer at Ipas in North Carolina, US; Ipas Policy Associate, Ipas-Malawi, Godfrey Kangaude; Sally Chiwama, a Zambian sexual reproductive health media consultant; and COPUA’s Innocent Kommwa.
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