In spite of new findings, the government continues to deliberate on the best plan of action.

Article | 3 April 2012 – 11:17am | By Lameck Masina

Blantyre, Malawi:

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.

A report conducted by Malawi’s Ministry of Health in conjunction with Ipas, a reproductive rights organisation headquartered in the US, found that 70,000 women had an illegal abortion in 2009 alone. It further showed that about 17% of maternal deaths in Malawi are the result of unsafe abortions.

The study, therefore, asked government to liberalise abortion laws so that a pregnant woman would have access to trained a medical practitioner if “she has ill health and needs an abortion and if the pregnancy is as a result of sexual coercion or if indeed the woman really feels that she cannot carry on with the pregnancy due to economic reasons”.

A money-saving initiative

The study also showed that Malawi is spending a significant amount of money on treating post-abortion complications. This was reiterated by the 2012 preliminary report on ‘Health System Costs of Providing Post Abortion Care in Malawi’, which estimates that basic post-abortion care costs around $45.

The report states, “Public health facilities in Malawi that provide post-abortion care spend approximately $1.06 million annually to treat women with complications of unsafe abortion”. It continues: “If safe abortion services were made available to women, approximately $435,000 would become available in public health care facilities each year to divert to other health care needs”.

A right for all

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.

Seode White, National Coordinator for WILSA-Malawi, explained to Think Africa Press that their fight is largely for the rights of poor, rural girls and women who do not have money to seek safe abortion services from private hospitals.

“Despite being illegal, the fact is that women from urban areas seek abortion in private health clinics where they get safe abortions while those poor girls in rural areas go to a backstreet clinic and get a very poor service. Some of them die and others end up not being able to have babies ever again,” she said.

“It’s high time Malawi take a leaf from other African countries like Zambia and South Africa where abortion is legal”.

In a sense, campaigners are simply trying to get Malawi to honour their commitment to the Maputo protocol, an agreement supporting greater reproductive rights for women.

Executive Secretary of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, Grace Malera, explained: “The Maputo protocol has an article that is subscribing to liberalisation [not only] when the pregnancy is threatening the life of the mother but as well as pregnancies that are resulting from rape and incest. In terms of the human rights, that is a right to health issue and we need to address it”.

Resistance to change

But not everyone is convinced of the need for more liberal abortion laws. David Odali, Executive Director of local human rights organisation the Umunthu Foundation, told Think Africa Press that liberalising abortion laws would be tantamount to giving people “a license to sleep around”, which would eventually lead to an increase in HIV transmission.

“If we have an open law on abortion, this would be subject to abuse because these women that are willingly getting pregnant will continue doing so knowing that once they are pregnant they have the option to end it”, he argued.

Most traditional and religious leaders in Malawi also consider abortion a sin and reject calls for its legalisation. Macdonald Kadawati, Chairman of the Public Affairs Committee, an umbrella organisation for the major faith communities in the country insisted that abortion was “not good for both the mother and the child”.

“The Bible tells us the point at which life begins…God has designed that one should be born and no one should take that life away because that is murder,” he says.

Sheikh Dinala Chabulika, National Coordinator of the Islamic Information Bureau, claimed that Islam generally regards abortion as murder and that “in Islam, abortion is only allowed when there is proof from a medical doctor that the life of a mother will be in danger during delivery.”

Despite resistance from religious leaders, however, the Ministry of Health has previously found that unsafe abortion isrampant among religious women in the country.

Watching and waiting

Despite research findings that have highlighted the health risks and economic costs incurred due to existing laws on abortion, health authorities have remained reluctant to declare their position on the possible liberalisation of these laws.

Health ministry spokesperson Henry Chimbali, for example, maintains that the authorities are still assessing the findings before they reach a conclusion. While the government assesses and pro and anti-abortion groups debate, dangerous illegal abortions continue.

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