Blantyre — As the world celebrates the International Safe Abortion Day on Thursday, 28 September, we, at the Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ) call on the Malawi government to decriminalise abortion, provide access to safe abortion services and end stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to terminate unintended pregnancies.
By decriminalizing abortion, Malawi will be fulfilling her obligation as a signatory of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Plan of Action) whose ultimate goal is for African Governments, civil society, the private sector, and all multi-sectoral development partners to work together in order to end preventable maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent deaths, expand contraceptive use, reduce levels of unsafe abortion, end child marriage and eradicate harmful traditional practices and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls.
We would like to remind the government that continued criminalization of abortion mocks the commitment Malawi made by signing and ratifying the Protocol. The criminalization of abortion and the failure of women and girls in Malawi to access quality abortion services is a violation of the rights to nondiscrimination, to privacy, and to make decisions about one's own body, and constitute torture or ill-treatment.
"Unsafe abortion is one of the major causes of maternal death in the country with complications from abortion contributing up to 18 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi. Desperate women in Malawi still use crude objects such as cassava sticks and sharp objects to perforate their private parts as they attempt to induce abortion," bemoans CSJ executive director Brian Ligomeka.
According to Ligomeka, this is sad considering that in countries where abortion is legal, all takes for women to induce abortion is sometimes just four tablets of such medicine as misoprostol.
It is against this background that we urge the government to immediately enact the new Termination of Pregnancy law as is recommended in a report which a Special Law Commission has presented to Malawi government.
The report contains the final findings of a two-year review of the Malawi abortion law conducted by a Special Law Commission whose members were representatives from diverse backgrounds including the Ministry of Health, the Judiciary, faith and traditional leaders, the Law Society, the Ministry of Justice and the Malawi College of Medicine.
Citing the high incidence of maternal mortality in Malawi due to unsafe abortion, the Special Law Commission recommended liberalization of the law that currently criminalizes abortion in all circumstances except to save the life of the pregnant woman.
The Special Law Commission's recommendations include allowing for abortion in cases of risks to physical or mental health of a pregnant woman, rape, incest and fetal abnormalities.
We would like to commend the Malawi Government for ensuring that the findings and recommendations, which include a model Termination of Pregnancy Bill are gazetted. What remains now is for the executive arm of the government to adopt the model bill and present it in Parliament for enactment.
Since issues of abortion cannot be tackled in isolation but as part of the comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, we urge the Malawi government:
To strengthen family planning programmes to ensure that all citizens can use contraceptive methods of their choices correctly and consistently. We believe that doing so will assist in reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, and hence minimise the need for abortion.
To expand post-abortion care services so that every woman or girl who suffers from complications from an unsafe abortion is able to access the care she needs.
To expedite the enactment of the Termination of Pregnancy legislation so that public and private health facilities can start offering safe abortion care for the women and girls who qualify for such services. This is very necessary because at the moment we have a law that is not achieving its intended purpose of preventing abortions.
The fulfillment of the above recommendations is in line with the numerous commitments Malawi government has already made. The Malawi Government, for example, committed herself to providing comprehensive and integrated Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRHR) services in line with the recommendations of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt, 1994 and similar commitments are echoed in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Plan of Action).
Facts about abortion in Malawi
Malawi's maternal mortality ratio remains one of the highest in the world--574 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014--and maternal deaths present a major public health challenge for the country.
The majority of induced abortion procedures in Malawi are performed under clandestine and unsafe conditions. Complications from abortions have been estimated to account for between 6% and 18% of maternal deaths in Malawi.
Abortion is only legal in Malawi to save a woman's life. Obtaining an abortion for any other reason is punishable by 7-14 years in prison.
A national debate is currently under way on whether or not to liberalize Malawi's abortion law by providing more exceptions under which an abortion could be legally obtained.
In Malawi, an estimated 141,000 abortions were performed in 2015. This number translates to a rate of 38 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-49.
Within Malawi, abortion rates vary widely by region, from 29 per 1,000 women in the Central region to 61 in the Northern region.
In Malawi in 2015, 39% of pregnancies ended in planned births, 30% in unplanned births, 16% in abortion and 15% in miscarriages.
Malawi's abortion rate is similar to other countries in the region, including Tanzania (36 per 1,000 women) and Uganda (39), as well as to the regional rates for Eastern Africa (34) and Southern Africa (35)
Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ), a human rights organization registered in Malawi, has issued this statement on International Safe Abortion Day on September 28.