By Emily M. K. Banda
Many people enjoy telling lies. Dirty lies. Petty lies. Harmful lies. For some, lying is part of their lives. They lie about everything. Their health. Their financial position. Their faith. Their relationships.
The culture of lying is so entrenched that lies affect almost every debate. Even the debate on the need to enable women to access sexual and reproductive health services is fraught with lies. Lies on safe abortion. Lies on maternal deaths. Lies about holy scriptures’ position on abortion. Lies that shadow great benefits of providing safe abortion in this country where over 141,000 women terminate pregnancies using dangerous procedures.
Some liars tend to forget that the issue of providing sexual and reproductive health services is already provided for in our laws.
The Gender Equality Act of 2013 in Section 19 provides that: “Every person has a right to adequate sexual and reproductive health which includes the right to:
- access sexual and reproductive health
- access to family planning services
iii. to be protected from sexually transmitted infection
- self-protection from sexually transmitted infection
- choose the number of children and when to bear the children
- control fertility; and
vii. choose an appropriate method of contraception
The second part of the same section provides that “Subject to any other written law, any person has the right to choose whether to have a child or not to have a child.”
That is the provision in our own laws passed in Parliament by both the ruling and opposition parties. The law is very clear that every woman is free to have a child or not. Hence no one – not even your pastor has power – to deny you freedom from enjoying your sexual and reproductive health and rights.
In fact, the provisions of Section 19 of our Gender Equality Act is in tandem with the commitment which our government made by signing and ratifying the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa championed by African Union.
By signing and ratifying it, Malawi committed to fulfilling the protocol which in Article 14 (2) provides that States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to:
- provide adequate, affordable and accessible health services, including information, education and communication programmes to women especially those in rural areas;
- establish and strengthen existing pre-natal, delivery and post-natal health and nutritional services for women during pregnancy and while they are breastfeeding;
- protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.
Despite having these clear laws, which obliges Malawi to ensure the provision of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, some deliberately distort the truth by telling lies.
Since provision of safe abortion and post abortion care is part of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the drafting of the proposed Termination of Pregnancy law shows Malawi is on the right path in implementing its own national and international obligations. What remains now is to prioritise the enactment of the proposed law.
The proposed Termination of Pregnancy law should be prioritized because though safe abortion in Malawi is restricted by the law, the Penal Code makes an exception for those circumstances in which the pregnancy poses a threat to the life to the pregnant girl or woman. Such circumstances include where the girl or woman has a medical condition, but also include situations where the pregnancy is a result of rape or defilement.
The setback at the moment is that the Ministry of Health has not put in place service guidelines to operationalise this exception. This is despite the Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy clearly stating that safe and legal abortion should be provided to the fullest extent of the law.
Currently, girls and women who are eligible for safe abortion in accordance with the law, including those whose pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or defilement, are turned away by health service providers because of the erroneous belief that it would be unlawful to provide such.
It is important for Malawi to enact the proposed Termination of Pregnancy law, which has clear guidelines on the provision of safe abortion so that deserving women and girls can have access to safe terminations of unwanted pregnancies.
Once again the truth is that abortion is not illegal. It is legal but restricted; meaning those eligible can have access. The proposed law also clearly say that abortion will remain restricted but accessible when he pregnancy poses a threat to the life to the pregnant girl or woman and in cases of fetal malformation, incest, rape or defilement