For 154 years now successive Malawian governments have stood by and watched while a British colonial law enacted in 1861 though meant to serve women’s lives – is now sending more Malawian women to the graves than to the world.
At 675 per 100,000 live births, Malawi’s maternal mortality rate is considered one of the highest in the world.
Malawi attributes 17 per cent of these deaths to unsafe abortions.
Twenty four year-old Tamala Mhango is lucky both because she survived the abortion and also escaped from the jaws of the law.
Now recuperating in a special ward at the 400 bed referral Mzuzu Central Hospital in northern Malawi, Mhango says the law still colonises Malawian women though Malawi is an independent country.
“We must have choices and its part of our right,” she says.
The Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) is making spirited campaigns throughout the country meeting various stakeholders including Law makers imploring them to reform the abortion law arguing that no Malawian woman must die from unsafe abortion.
“Access to safe abortion should be compared to any other human right such as gender equality, women rights, privacy, life and dignity,” COPUA’s National Coordinator Chrispine Sibande said.
The ‘British’ law, still perched in the country’s penal code, punishes any person who wants to help a woman procure an abortion with a maximum of 14 year jail term.
It also penalises any woman who takes steps to have a miscarriage with a seven year imprisonment.
And those who supply instruments, tools or drugs that are used in abortion also get away with a three year jail term.
On the other hand the law says ‘any person’ will not be criminally liable for performing surgery that results in the termination of pregnancy provided there is good faith and reasonable skill to save the woman’s life.
“That’s where the problem is. The law just says ‘any person’ and it does not say whether that person has to a specialist such as a Gynaecologist, Obstetrician, Surgeon Clinical Officer, medical assistant or midwife,” COPUA’s National Coordinator Chrispine Sibande said.
COPUA’s says the current abortion law must be reviewed in line with the recommendation of the African Union through the African Protocol on Women’s Rights and the Maputo Action Plan to which Malawi is a signatory.
“We all understand that there are legitimate reasons or grounds where a woman or a girl would opt to terminate a pregnancy. The analysis of abortion in Malawi has to start with the law,” said Sibande, who is also a Human Rights Lawyer.
Sibande said the current law is both flawed and incompatible with current trends saying it is known fact that procuring abortion through surgical operation is not realistic since the advent of oral drugs such as misoprostol and mifepristone.
Of the approximately 70,000 – 90,000 women who do unsafe abortions in Malawi, tools and equipment used range from cassava sticks, herbs, bottles, wires, bicycle spokes, needles, folks and other means dangerous to health.
Several studies done in Malawi reveal that almost 30 per cent of all women admitted in the gynaecological wards are victims of unsafe abortions.
“These women do not go to health establishments for safe abortions even if they have valid and good reasons. Instead they go to backyard clinics where traditional and unhygienic equipment are used,” said Dr Ausbert Thoko Mussa from Malawi’s College of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
He said using obscure tools and other substances to eliminate pregnancies leaves life threatening complications.
“The uterus and womb are very delicate and using cassava sticks, bicycle spokes or wires may affect blood supply and cause decay in the body. Women are dying and some have been permanently disabled, never to conceive and give birth again,” Dr Mussa said.
He said the current law is a danger to Malawian women because it is ambiguous and discriminative as it puts women unwilling to keep pregnancies in dilemma.
The public, government-run health facilities endure the cost of caring for the post abortion care because of complications with the annual bill footed by taxpayers pegged at US$300,000 – US$500,000 per year.
Contraception is available at health clinics but its use coupled with unwanted pregnancies among young women (18 – 30) especially those who are unmarried is highly stigmatized hence the low uptake.
Women, especially younger than 25 years old, are paying a high price for this colonial law physically, economically and socially.
Traditional leaders and Clergy have also joined the safe abortion campaign noting that the low use of contraception at 42 per cent is pushing many women into unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
“We ask that deliberate steps should be taken so that contraceptive use is up-scaled to more than 60 per cent within two years. 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,” said Chief Kyungu.
Pressure from various stakeholders to review the abortion law commenced in 2000 and the Malawi government only bowed down in 2013 when it established a Special Commission to review the law.
Headed by Judge Esmie Chombo, the Commission has come up with a new abortion Bill called Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
The bill, yet to be enacted into law among other things has scrapped the criminalisation of people assisting with abortions and those procuring abortions.