Almost 275 thought leaders have come together here in Ethiopia to share insights on unsafe abortion, a clandestine crisis which kills over one fifth of Malawian women dying of Pregnancy-related conditions.
The encounter, which seeks to reinforce strides towards closing the gap between increasing volumes of research and slow policy-making across the continent, is the second Africa regional conference on abortion since March 2006. It marks a decade since Ethiopia made termination of pregnancy legal and safe.
Speaking when he opened the conference on Tuesday night, Ethiopia’s Federal Minister of Health Professor Yifru Berhan Mitke urged countries to revise restrictive laws and policies that drive women and girls into unsafe abortions, a major cause of preventable Pregnancy-related deaths on the continent with the highest rates of mortality rates globally.
The minister spoke of “10 years of progress”, saying the liberal law that makes abortion legal and safe has helped reduce the burden of maternal deaths to just 10 percent from 32 percent in 10 years ago despite rampant stigma and low attention given to the sticky reproductive health issue by governments, donors and researchers.
“I strongly believe that a woman will benefit from this conference,” he said.
The conference brings to the front a sticky issue that has catalysed a morality debate and ideological backlash in Malawi where the newly drafted Termination of Pregnancy Bill is awaiting to be discussed in the National Assembly.
On December 6, the Evangelical Association of Malawi and Episcopal Conference of Malawi will lead nationwide protests against rising calls for liberalisation of abortion which have been branded a celebration of life and death.
However, NGO-Gender Coordination Network (GCN) board chairperson Emma Kaliya said in an interview in the Ethiopian capital that the raging morality debate will not save any life at a time research by the Ministry of Health shows unsafe abortion kills 17 in 100 women dying of pregnancy-related complications.
She explained: “For years, gender activists, safe motherhood champions and other campaigners have been accused of campaigning for killings of innocent babies. Aren’t our colleagues on the other side of the heated debate over rising demands for safe abortion not celebrating deaths of numerous women and girls dying needlessly due to restrictive laws?
“As a country, we need to come together to find a way of ending these needless maternal deaths because there is overwhelming evidence that it will not stop women from terminating unwanted pregnancies if they want to do so.”
Malawi is one of the countries under spotlight at this continental gathering following the Bill which seeks to save lives of almost 70 000 terminate pregnancies every year–with 31 000 of them seeking treatment for crippling complications of unsafe abortions.
The incidence and magnitude study by the Ministry of Health shows one fifth of women and girls who seek secret abortions, often using shop objects and poisonous substances, suffer damning complications culminating to death, disabilities, removal of the womb.
The figures form the core of Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua) media taskforce chairperson Simon Sikwese’s presentation at the conference which highlight how campaigners and their groupies are using existing evidence to push for the ongoing law reforms to reduce the suffering of women and girls in need of abortion.
John Hetherington, the chief executive officer at Ipas, a reproductive health think tank headquartered in the US, said he was excited by increasing volumes of research, government support and the civil society actors dedicated to tackling the challenge of unsafe abortion which remains complicated, interesting and hugely misunderstood.
He urged all players to redouble their efforts in the face of “a dark cloud” on the struggle for safe and legal abortion following the election of anti-abortion US president-elect Donald Trump and threats being directed at pro-choice activists.
The continent has never been short of policies, protocols, action plans and research on the imperative to loosen laws prohibiting safe abortion except when the life of the woman is in danger, but the shift keeps being delayed by lack of political will.
African Union commissioner for social affairs Dr Mustafa Kaloko drew attention to the Maputo Plan of Action and other “game changers” which put governments, including Malawi, under obligation to revise legal and policy barriers to sexual and reproductive health, including access to safe abortion.
However, he drew murmurs of protest when he reiterated AU stance that campaigners for removal of barriers to safe abortion should be mindful to the diverse cultural and religious values of 54 countries on the continent.
“Even the Maputo Plan of Action should be implemented in line with the existing laws and in a manner that is age-appropriate, sensitive to prevalent culture and involving parents,” he said.
But Kaliya said it is pathetic women and girls still die in the name of culture and religion on the continent which boasts as the only region with specific protocols and policies that guarantee women and girls access to family planning, comprehensive sexuality education, safe abortion and other sexual and reproductive health rights and options.