Tears flowed from my eyes when pallbearers lowered the coffin into the grave. I could not understand why the hospital had refused to offer my niece a safe abortion whose pregnancy was a result of rape. I blamed the leadership of my country, Malawi, for failing to review the law that criminalises abortion. The law that forced her to go for a backstreet abortion which led to her death.
“I have lost my niece because of the draconian abortion law,” I said to myself.
Two months later, after the death of my niece, I received an invitation to attend a meeting on Sexual and Reproductive Health in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
At the meeting, I was relieved to learn that others were as unhappy with the abortion law as I was. Some of them were fellow journalists like me, while others were health workers, traditional leaders, human rights activists, lawyers and young people.
During the meeting, we spent two days discussing the magnitude and consequences of unsafe abortion in Malawi. At the end of the sessions, we formed the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion.
As coalition members, we vowed that we would advocate for abortion law reform, no matter how big the opposition will be, and no matter how long it will take us. That was in 2009.
Despite the stiff opposition, including being labelled sinners, murderers and agents of darkness, we are focused on our vision of creating a Malawi nation where no one should die from unsafe abortion.
To achieve that vision, unsafe abortions which contribute 18 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi need to be addressed through law reform.
I am asked regularly: Are you and fellow members of the coalition making progress?
Following our advocacy, the Malawi Government empanelled a Special Law Commission on the Review of the Law on Abortion in 2013.
The state-run Law Commission made consultations on the issue of unsafe abortions. In February 2015, it recommended liberalisation of the law due to
- the negative health impact of unsafe abortions,
- the high cost of providing post-abortion care and
- the need for Malawi to fulfil its commitments to provide safe abortion provision as a signatory of international health conventions.
The Special Law Commission resolved and recommended that termination of pregnancy should be allowed on four grounds. The grounds are where:
- continuing the pregnancy will endanger the life of a pregnant woman;
- termination is necessary to prevent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman,
- there is severe malformation of a foetus, which will affect its viability or compatibility with life; and
- the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, or defilement.
The Commission drafted a proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill, expected to be tabled in Parliament. According to our allies in Parliament (MPs), the plan is to have the bill tabled in Parliament either late this month or in early October.
We have come so far. We have research on abortion in the country, and a draft law sitting with the Ministries of Health and Justice. But we need this bill to be passed.
Our message is enact the Termination of Pregnancy Bill to save women’s lives. As expected, the anti-choice movement has also upped its opposition to law reform.
I am hopeful that no amount of resistance and even derailments will stop us from ensuring that one day the law will be enacted, so that others should not die due to unsafe abortion like my niece.