North pushes for ‘legalising’ abortion law in Malawi

Senior Traditional leaders and Clergy from northern Malawi have asked the Malawi government to develop new and modern laws on abortion that take into account women’s rights and the concerns of the population.

Officially illegal, but by no means uncommon, abortion is a controversial topic in Malawi.

Abortion is outlawed except in cases where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Section 149 of Malawi’s penal code condemns any person who administers an abortion to 14 years imprisonment, while Section 156 states that any woman who solicits an abortion is liable to 7 years in prison.

Despite this, abortions still occur, usually performed by untrained personnel.

Chief Kyungu and other chiefs: Safe abortion should be allowed
Chief Kyungu and other chiefs: Safe abortion should be allowed

Malawi’s current legislation on abortion was developed in 1860 and has remained as such despite numerous scientific developments on medical abortion.

The Chiefs and Clergy said this in their communiqué issued on Wednesday at Mzuzu Hotel after intense deliberations on the magnitude and cost of unsafe abortion in Malawi.

They noted that contraceptive use in Malawi is low at 42 percent saying this is pushing many women into unwanted pregnancies hence the procurement of unsafe abortions.

“We ask that deliberate steps should be taken so that contraceptive use is up-scaled to more than 60 percent within two years,” they said.

The Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) organised the two days meeting which culminated into a three paged strongly worded communiqué signed by more than 40 people.

Studies from the Ministry of Health show that 70,000 women and girls go through abortion every year and out of these 31,000 develop serious complications including permanent disability, injury and death.

And that 30 – 40 percent of all hospital admissions in Malawi are due to abortion related cases and 17 out of every 100 women dying due to unsafe abortion.

Consequently, the Malawi government is spending from US$300,000 – US$500,000 per year in post abortion care.

“We did not understand abortion and its inherent implications. We have agreed that government must allow safe abortions while it reviews or develop new legislation that is compatible with international standards despite the fact this issue is view as a taboo.

“But we need to understand that culture is also important to the lives of women who die every year,” Paramount Chief Kyungu said.

They said they recognised that the Malawi government has already carried out research studies on the magnitude and incidences of unsafe abortions, strategic assessment and cost study on providing post abortion care.

“And that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has already provided guidance on how to address issues of unsafe abortions in countries in Malawi.

“We note that Malawians have been made to understand that abortion is illegal, but we note that under section 243 of the Penal Code, abortion is legal but the law is restrictive,” reads part of the communiqué.

The restrictions have forced scores of women to procure unsafe abortion through the use of cassava sticks, herbs, bottles, wires, bicycle spokes, needles, folks and other means dangerous to health.

“The section is vague and is unhelpful to Health specialists. We also ask government to immediately develop standards and guidelines to clarify section 243 to reflect current trends,” they said.

Women’s rights campaigners are also sounding the call to change the law with local and international rights organisations such as Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust WILSA-Malawi, the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion COPUA, and Ipas all taking part.

While the government assesses and pro and anti-abortion groups debate, dangerous illegal abortions continue.

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