As Malawi’s parliament prepares to review a new draft law on abortion, the bill is being criticized by both anti-abortion activists who condemn it as immoral, and pro-choice activists who argue that it doesn’t go far enough.
The country’s current law on abortion, which was written in 1861, states that the procedure is allowed only if it is necessary to save a woman’s life. Any woman who terminates her pregnancy, as well as anyone who helps her, faces up to 14 years in prison. The new bill, which will be debated by parliament next year, broadens the circumstances in which a woman is allowed to have an abortion. But according to advocates such as Chrispine Sibande, national coordinator for the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion, any limitation on abortion puts the health of Malawi’s women at risk.
Women & Girls spoke with Sibande about the bill and the problem of unsafe abortion in Malawi.
Women & Girls: What is the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion?
Chrispine Sibande: The Coalition was established in 2010 after the Malawi government, through the Ministry of Health, conducted three research studies that highlighted the problem of unsafe abortions. This led to the birth of the coalition, and people needed to advocate and raise awareness on the need for Malawi to change abortion laws. The coalition consists of lawyers, doctors, activists, human rights defenders, nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, traditional leaders and community-based organizations. Membership is open to any Malawian who believes in human rights and women’s rights, and who believes Malawi has to do something to address the problem of unsafe abortions.
Women & Girls: What were the findings from those three studies?
Sibande: The first study revealed that in Malawi, about 70,000 women have abortions each year. Furthermore, out of those 70,000, about 31,000 develop complications. Out of the 31,000 that develop complications, 20,000 of these abortions are completely unsafe. It also revealed that 17 percent of maternal mortality in Malawi is due to unsafe abortion [as are] between 30-40 percent of gynecological admissions to hospitals.
In the second study, which looked at how much Malawi spends on post-abortion care, it was discovered that the government spends about $500,000 a year on providing post-abortion care.
The third study revealed that all Malawians understand that the problem of unsafe abortion exists. Different stakeholders were interviewed, including religious leaders, chiefs, young people, politicians, parliamentarians – and all of them agreed that this problem exists. They did however raise the challenge that it was a difficult subject to discuss publicly.
Women & Girls: How is the new law different from current abortion legislature in Malawi?
Sibande: From 2012 to 2015, the Malawi government tried to review [the current] law through the Special Law Commission on Review of Abortion Law.
This special law commission consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Health, the judiciary, the law society, the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Muslim community and traditional leaders, who were all led by a high court judge. They came up with the new law, known as the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. In the proposed law, they added more grounds to help Malawian women access abortion. That is, if the pregnancy threatens the life of a woman, if it is a result of rape, incest or defilement, and where there is fatal malformation of the fetus.
The law still needs to be passed by parliament, but from a human rights perspective, from a women’s rights perspective, and from a sexual rights perspective, this law is not good enough.
Women & Girls: Why do you say that?
Sibande: It does not provide for abortion-on-demand, like the laws in South Africa, Mozambique, Seychelles and Cape Verde. You need to provide women with a choice to terminate pregnancy. It also does not provide for termination of pregnancy due to economic reasons, like the Zambian law. We would have liked to see termination-on-demand included, so any woman who walks into the hospital would be able to terminate a pregnancy. We would have also liked to see termination for socioeconomic reasons included.
If we let women know that they are free to make a choice, it will mean that many women and girls will be able to access health services. Abortion is not offered in isolation; it is a comprehensive way of offering reproductive services. With comprehensive abortion care, a woman also gets information on what resulted in the unwanted pregnancy and methods of contraception. Many people do not understand the comprehensive approach to abortion care and assume women will just come and get abortions.
Women & Girls: Why do you think there has been widespread criticism of the bill?
Sibande: Firstly, some people are opposed to the bill due to moral and religious grounds. Secondly, some are opposed as they have not fully understood the bill. Thirdly, people do not want to give women a choice to make a decision to terminate pregnancy, as evidenced by the argument that it will lead to promiscuity. This is linked to cultural power relations between women and men that have existed for many years in a patriarchal system that opposes women having such choices.
Finally, Malawi has not reviewed the law since 1861, so it is also a new thing, and abortion has not really been discussed. So people need to understand that it’s not just about terminating pregnancy, it’s a matter of offering women comprehensive reproductive health services.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.