Activists Fighting to Secure Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in Malawi amidst Resistance 

On March 11, 2021, the Malawian parliament refused a tabling of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. I remember the nerves and excitement the night before the set date when members of parliament would decide on passing the motion for the bill.  I remember sisterhood’s familiar feeling after forming a consortium of young women leaders representing IYAFP Malawi, SheDecides Malawi, Pepeta Malawi, FOCESE and Young Feminist Network, and taking the lead as the youth advocating for women’s body autonomy.

While we certainly anticipated strong opposition from members of parliament, the excitement we had was primarily because this was a significant step in the conservative Malawian society. The bill would highlight the necessity for access to quality and modern sexual and reproductive health rights in order for us to realise our bodily autonomy.

I remember the young women who came to stand with us outside parliament in a bid to show support and stand in solidarity with MP Matthews Ngwale, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Health Committee, as he presented the bill to parliament.

We remained unbowed amidst the opposition and intimidation from parliament guards who attempted to chase us. For many of us, that moment will remain historical in the journey and fight for women’s rights in Malawi. 

While the name carries an air of apprehension, the Termination of Pregnancy bill (TOP Bill) was introduced as an amendment to the existing colonial abortion laws provided in the Malawian Penal Code since 1861. The Penal Code provides that a woman can only procure an abortion if a doctor decides that her life is in danger.

Due to these restrictions, many women unable to access safe abortion have resorted to the backdoor and unsafe abortions, resulting in death, and life long complications, including sepsis, ruptured wombs, haemorrhage and death. According to a research study by Guttmacher Institute, complications from unsafe abortions have been estimated to account for 6 to 18 per cent of the maternal deaths in Malawi.

Furthermore, unsafe abortion is one of the significant factors contributing to maternal mortality, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa. This region has the highest maternal mortality rate, with an estimated 640 deaths per 100,000 live births as of 2008. Abortion complications caused 14% of those deaths. While maternal deaths have declined in Malawi, the rate of maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortions remains very high in Malawi. (Guttmacher Institute, 2015).

In an effort to prevent complications and death, an amendment bill was drafted in the hope that it would be passed in Parliament to become law.  Like other bills prepared before, there was a need to implement nationwide advocacy campaigns on the importance of the bill and highlight the prevalence of unsafe abortions and the key causes and possible solutions in the country. The amendment bill proposed the following as grounds for  safe abortion; 

  1. To save a woman’s life, if continuing with the pregnancy may likely cause a loss of her life.
  2. In the case of severe fetal malformation, if the severe malformations make it impossible for the fetus to be viable for life outside the womb.
  3. If there is evidence that continuing with the pregnancy will threaten the woman’s mental and physical well-being.
  4. If the pregnancy results from rape, incest or defilement, provided it is the woman’s choice to terminate the pregnancy.

These grounds were proposed upon several deliberations and consultations by the law commission on the key causes of unsafe abortions.  After the reviews, various organisations and key stakeholders developed and implemented advocacy campaigns leading to the day the bill was presented in parliament, a date that was finally confirmed in the last quarter of 2020. Consultations included religious bodies in Malawi -The Evangelical Association of Malawi and The Episcopal Conference of Malawi- traditional leaders, youth, leaders of University student Unions and the General public. 

These grounds were also proposed in accordance with article 14 of the Maputo Protocol: Health and Reproductive Rights section 2,  subsection c, which states that; 

‘State parties shall 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.’

Malawi has ratified the Protocol but is yet to domesticate key articles on women’s body autonomy. The country is still very unsafe and insecure for women, with rates of violence drastically increasing every day, especially after the onset of COVID-19.

Contributing factors to the rates of violence as well as the denial of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights include; the hostile response from key decision-makers to domesticate international conventions such as the Maputo protocol on the protection of women and girls; and the harmful social norms that Malawi, as well as many other African countries still uphold to this day.

Women bodies are still subjected to many forms of violence that the Government of Malawi and many Malawian society members refuse to acknowledge, discuss or act on. Yet, the mention of safe abortion has them up in arms opposing the “ungodly” nature of abortion.

The words, immoral and sinful behaviour have been the anthem for the opposing voices, leaders of the religious bodies and key government players who are primarily men. It is important to note that men are majorly the opposition to women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and there is an urgent need to call it to an end.

A key lesson from this campaign is that Malawian women are tired of the oppression and constant denial of their human rights’ realisation and will no longer be silent.

As we continue this journey, we can only ask and hope that many other African young women join our voices until our different societies recognise our rights as women as human rights.

Jessica Mandanda is a young African feminist from Malawi. She is a writer and communications specialist working on gender, development and the protection of women‘s rights. She is passionate about bodily autonomy, sex positivity, body positivity, ending sexual violence against all women and girls and the liberation of women in realizing our sexual and reproductive health and rights.