Three women died of complications of unsafe abortion amid scarcity of blood scarcity at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) this week. This comes less than a month after KCH health workforce petitioned Parliament to help end chronic stock-outs of essential drugs which have seen people dying needlessly.
Speaking during a debate conducted by Coalition for Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua) in Mzuzu on Wednesday, gynecologist-cum-obstetrician Dr Grace Chiudzu said: “Just this week, three women with complication due to unsafe abortion died at Kamuzu Central Hospital.
“The first case delayed to report to the hospital which is a typical case of fear and shame for women who abort in clandestine environments often without the help of skilled health workers because the law bars them from seeking abortion. She was very sick. We tried to look for blood to save her life, but we couldn’t get any. It was sad seeing her die.”
She reckoned the second was suffering from perforation of the uterus. She lost the battle to stay alive while medics were trying to resuscitate her. The third, said the doctor, passed on after heavy bleeding since the medical team could not find a pint of blood just when she needed it.
Concealed cracks in the country’s health system flapped open in January this year when high-profile doctors at the referral hospital in Lilongwe told President Joyce Banda in an open letter that it was pathetic to watch people dying of treatable conditions due to an endless shortage of essential drugs.
Despite the latest action from KCH staff, government has repeatedly assured the nation that the drug levels in the country’s hospitals and at the Medical Stores Trust is improving.
While the country is battling to further reduce the maternal mortality rate amid laws that restrict abortion to saving the mother from life-threatening conditions, the government study also indicates that approximately 70 000 women in the country undergo the procedure every year. Counting the cost, it further revealed that government loses about K300 million annually as about 30 000 girls and women are treated for complications of unsafe abortion which range from hemorrhage, infections as well as organ and system failure and death.
The revelations have led to a mounting campaign for liberalisation of laws which makes those who seek or conduct abortion liable to imprisonment, but the campaign is often met by fierce resistance from most Malawians who think it is against the country’s cultural and religious values.
But in a turnaround, an opinion is gaining sway among some traditional leaders that the colonial laws should be amended to give women the power to choose whether to keep unwanted pregnancies, some of which result from rape, incest or unplanned conception.
T/A Lukwa said the newly-enacted Gender Equality Act and President Joyce Banda’s Safe Motherhood Foundation are nothing if government allows girls and women to be subjected to maternal death by maintaining tough laws against abortion.
“Malawians often have a holier-than-thou attitude of hiding behind religion and culture, yet it is the same people who profess to be religious or cultural warriors who end raping, engaging in incest and disowning pregnancies, leaving women with unwanted pregnancies. Things must change if we are serious about safe motherhood.”
Concurring, Senior Chief Mtwalo and T/A Mabulabo of Mzimba said Malawians cannot bury their heads in culture or religion because abortion is real.
Mtwalo said: “We, the rural poor are very bitter because our girls and women keep dying of risky abortions while our colleagues in urban areas have the money to engage skilled health workers to help them abort. We need to get rid of the restrictions so that rural girls and women can access safe abortion.”
According to law and gender expert Tinyade Kathika of Lawplus, the restriction in the penal code is an antiquated clause common in countries which were under British colony. She reckons it is ironic that Britain got rid of them in the 1950s.
Human rights activist Godfrey Kangaude says a tour in Ethiopia showed that congestion in wards actually dropped when the Horn of Africa nation liberalised its laws. Similarly, Chiudzu says, global trends show the number of abortions remain the same despite soft laws, except that unsafe abortions drop as women and girls shift to safe procedures.
Similarly, said Chiudzu, global trends show the number of abortions remain the same despite soft laws, except that unsafe abortions drop as women and girls shift to safe procedures.