The law versus abortion in Malawi

By Arkangel Tembo, Panos

When 16- year old Tendai (not her real name), from Chinkhota Village, Traditional Authority Simphasi in Mchinji district got pregnant, she sought the assistance of a herbalist from a nearby village to terminate the pregnancy.

The Standard 8 pupil sneaked out of her home in the company of three closest friends because she did not want her parents to be aware of the whole situation.

Her boyfriend, a Form 3 student, was not even present to see her off as he denied being responsible for the pregnancy.

Hers was a complicated ‘labour’. Since the herbalist was not professionally trained to conduct abortions, he failed to stop the bleeding induced by the concoction he gave her. Tendai died.

Tendai is not the only girl in Malawi to die of abortion. A gynaecologist at Mwaiwathu Private Hospital, Dr Edgar Kuchingale, recently told journalists in Blantyre that unsafe abortion contribute to 30 percent of maternal deaths in the country.

Dr Kuchingale: Unsafe abortion is second leading cause of maternal death in Malawi

“Out of the 17 women who die of maternal complications every day, four develop such complications from unsafe abortions. Unfortunately, most of these women are from rural areas where they do not have access to good health facilities due to their poor financial standing,” he said.

Kuchingale said some of the factors that forced girls and women into unsafe abortion were restrictive laws on abortion, social and cultural stigma associated with unintended pregnancy and inadequate access to safe abortion services.

A visit to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre revealed that women admitted to the gynaecology ward were treated for complications caused by backstreet abortions.

Martha Bokosi, Project manager for Safe Motherhood in Malawi echoes Kuchingale’s revelation that unsafe abortion is killing a lot of young girls in the country.

Ms Bokosi further states that 25 percent of backstreet abortion patients are teenagers under the age of 19 while up to 32 percent of the women die from severe bleeding and infection after unsafe abortion.

She says teenagers, desperate to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, often try to induce a miscarriage by taking anti-malaria drugs but instead die of overdose. Others go to illegal abortionists who are known to use objects such as bicycle spokes to remove the foetus.

Abortion is currently illegal in Malawi; however a pregnant woman can terminate her pregnancy at a legally recognized health institution only when her life is in danger. This situation is believed to force women to seek illegal and unsafe ways of terminating unwanted pregnancies.

The Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) is equally concerned with maternal deaths caused by illegal abortions.

WILSA executive director, Seodi White, as quoted in The Daily Times of 07 June, 2011   in a story written by Archibald Kasakura, the high maternal mortality rate for Malawi, which is currently estimated at between 675 and 800 per 100,000 live births, is closely related to the law that restricts abortion, especially among poor young girls and women who cannot afford a safe abortion because of lacking resources.

White goes on to state that it was a pity that government continues to show some hesitancy in addressing this issue.

“This is a serious violation of women’s rights like of body autonomy. Why should poor girls and women die while others from well-to-do backgrounds survive from the same situation because they can access safe abortions in private clinics?” she is quoted as saying.

She adds: “WILSA wants the law to open up and allow certain circumstances to be considered in order to prevent poor girls and women from resorting to unsafe abortions that put their lives at huge risk”.

Ms White’s sentiments are echoed by Godfrey Kangaude, policy advocacy associate from Ipas, who says unsafe abortion is rampant among the poor women and girls in the villages because policy makers are paying a blind eye to the problem as rich people are having safe abortion.

“We need to change our advocacy policies and legal environment so that abortion should be provided in public health facilities.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) report titled ‘Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2003, 5th edition (2007), abortion is safe in countries where it is legal, but extremely dangerous in countries where it is outlawed.

Some members of the public are also in support of the call to legalize abortion in Malawi.

Martha Kangaude, from Benje Village in Mchinji district is of the view that abortion should be legalized in Malawi but with conditions attached, saying only girls that have been raped should be allowed to abort.

“Many girls are dying from illegal abortions, yet government pretends not to know. We need to legalize it for the sake of poor girls who are most affected, especially those who get pregnant after being raped,” she says.

However, Pastor Dando Kaswengwa of Revival Church differs with Martha. He says legalizing abortion in the county would be committing a sin against God.

“God told us not to take human life, which would be the case should we legalize the termination of pregnancy. Legalizing abortion would encourage promiscuity among girls knowing government would support their intention to abort once they get pregnant.”

Pastor Kansengwa said the current law is okay, saying those that abort should be arrested.

What then is the position of government on legalising abortion for all women intending to terminate unwanted pregnancies?

Health Minister Professor David Mphande told Malawi Voice that government would soon draft a new abortion law following public demands.

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