No choice for pregnant women in Malawi?
by Pilirani Semu-Banda
LILONGWE, Apr 29 - An influential women rights organisation in Malawi, Women in Law in Southern Africa-Malawi (WILSA-Malawi), is suing the government of Malawi for preventing women from accessing safe abortion.
Malawian law prohibits abortion - Section 149 of the country’s penal code says any person who administers abortion shall be liable to imprisonment for 14 years, while Section 150 indicates that any woman who solicits abortion is liable to seven years imprisonment.
But WILSA-Malawi’s executive director, Seodi White, calls the existing laws nonsensical because they infringe on women’s rights. She says they force women to seek back-street abortions from traditional healers and illegal clinics thereby putting their lives in danger.
"These laws do not make sense at all. They are contributing towards the death of so many women. We need to get rid of them as soon as possible," urged White.
Government statistics in Malawi indicate that up to 30 percent of maternal deaths in the country are due to abortion. Malawi’s maternal mortality is one of the highest in Africa - second only to war-torn Sierra Leone.
White says refusing women the right to abort is discrimination. "Access to legal and safe abortion services is essential to the protection of women’s rights to non-discrimination and equality. Where women are compelled to continue unwanted pregnancies, it puts them at a disadvantage because abortion is a medical procedure that only women need," she told IPS.
White argues that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has implied that the denial of medical procedures that only women need is a form of discrimination against women. "Therefore, restrictive abortion laws may amount in certain cases to discrimination against women," she concluded.
WILSA-Malawi is also contending that when pregnancy is unwanted, a legal requirement to continue the pregnancy may constitute government intrusion on a woman’s body. "We are therefore taking the Malawi government to court for failing to protect the women in the country," explained White.
WILSA-Malawi, whose main mandate is to work towards improving women's human rights from a legal and social perspective, has already celebrated one major success in changing legislation to improve women’s rights.
In 2006, the organisation facilitated the enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, after a long battle against the country’s deeply rooted culture and beliefs that wife beating was normal.
Meanwhile, a number of other organisations have joined WILSA-Malawi in the debate on unsafe abortion. For instance, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a government body working on developing and sustaining a culture of respect for human rights among all people in Malawi, indicated that one of the issues the country needs to tackle is abortion.
"This is part of addressing reproductive and sexual health rights of all Malawians. This is important, because there is overwhelming evidence of dangerous termination of pregnancies among women and girl children of Malawi," said MHRC executive director Dr. Aubrey Mvula.
He says the initiative is in line with global women’s rights protocols, such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Beijing Declaration and its Platform of Action. ICPD objectives include universal access to reproductive care services, while the Beijing Declaration urges governments to review laws that contain punitive measures against women who undergo illegal abortion.
Mvula stressed the fact that international human rights law supports the need to terminate pregnancy to promote and protect other human rights.
"Therefore, MHRC submits that Malawi needs to move forward and significantly promote the health of women and the girl child by making sure that all dangerous pregnancies acquired through unwanted, ill-advised and accidental sexual activities or economic problems need to be terminated on that basis," he said.
In response to demands by MHRC and WILSA-Malawi, the Reproductive Health Unit (RHU) within Malawi’s Department of Health admitted that unsafe abortions are rampant in the country.
RHU deputy director Fannie Kachale points out that most countries with low maternal death rates, such as South Africa and Ghana, have had to permit induced abortion and that legalising abortion has not led to increased number of abortions in those countries. "It has just shifted [numbers from] unsafe to safe abortions," she said.
Kachale explained that while the government of Malawi does not permit abortion, it indirectly acknowledges the fact that illegal abortions take place, because it provides post-abortion care to women who underwent abortions and have developed complications.
According to IPAS, an international organisation working globally to increase women's ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to reduce abortion-related deaths and injuries, by providing post-abortion care, the government of Malawi is confirming that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.
Dr. Eunice Brookman-Amissah, vice president of IPAS Africa, told IPS that women usually have valid and important reasons for abortion. "Women tend to seek abortions when pregnancies are not supported by their partners, families or communities, when the pregnancy may threaten the woman’s health or survival or when the foetus has abnormalities. It’s not for immoral reasons," she said.
Brookman-Amissah also explained that the medical process of abortion is usually simpler and cheaper than post-abortion care. "Induced abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. But with unsafe abortion, women easily develop complications, such as hemorrhage, infections, incomplete abortion and secondary infertility. These conditions are very expensive to treat," said Dr. Brookman-Amissah.
As the example of Malawi shows, making abortion illegal does not prevent them from happening. "Where safe abortion is unavailable, women go for unsafe abortion through the ingestion of herbs, bleach, gasoline and gun powder. Others go for vaginal insertions of sharp tools such as twigs and pouches filled with arsenic," explained Brookman-Amissah.
Some women have also been reported to hit themselves into the stomach, while others throw themselves from high places to abort the foetus. According to IPAS, apart from death, consequences of unsafe abortion include significant short and long-term illness, injury and infertility.