In February, Ivy was happy when a man was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for repeatedly defiling her since 2019.
The 13-year-old girl last saw him when he tried in vain to bribe her father to terminate the court case and her pregnancy.
She refused, saying many rural Malawian girls die while secretly terminating pregnancies outside health facilities.
“I didn’t want to die like my friends. I don’t want to be detained. I was afraid,” says the Standard Three girl impregnated by a man thrice her age.
She remembers the 37-year-old man threatening to strangle her if she did not abort.
“Three times, he gave me red pills and told me to abort or die. I refused,” she says.
Malawi’s colonial laws inherited from Britain bans abortion except to save a woman’s life. One could be jailed for seven to 14 years for providing or procuring an abortion.
This forces women to terminate pregnancies in risky clandestine settings with the help of unskilled hands.
The ensuing complications make backstreet abortions the third largest killer of pregnant women and girls in Malawi, claiming up to 18 lives out of every 100 maternal deaths, currently estimated at 439 out of every 100 000 live births.
A study by reproductive health experts at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine and US-based Guttmacher Institute showed 141 000 women induced abortions in 2015 and six in every 10 sought medical treatment for conditions likely to result in death, injury or loss of fertility.
“Girls in my village do it with the assistance of birth attendants, but some of them have died and others will never give birth again,” says Ivy.
She is waiting to give birth at Rumphi District Hospital because underage girls cannot safely deliver at her nearest health centre—Bolero.
Meanwhile, she is puzzled whether “the baby is a gift from God or a fruit of a selfish man” who ruined her innocence and future.
Ivy’s “God-fearing” mother refused growing calls to help the girl secretly terminate the pregnancy so she could return to school.
“Our hands are tied. Abortion is against our laws and religious beliefs; it’s like killing. It’s dangerous. But if she keeps the pregnancy, the baby will always remind us of the selfish man who only cared about his lust, not the girls’ rights and wellbeing. I wish he spent the rest of his life rotting in jail,” says the mother.
Chiradzulu West legislator Mathews Ngwale’s private member’s bill seeks to create room for girls like Ivy to get safe abortion in the country’s hospitals. This fast-tracks the Termination of Pregnancy Bill proposed by the Law Commission in 2015 after public hearings.
The State-led law reform stagnated in 2016, when some religious groups marched against the movement to liberalise abortion laws, which Ngwale expects to liberate women from deadly abortions and “colonial chains”
“The Bill seeks to give girls like Ivy a choice to terminate pregnancies resulting from sexual assault.Some fall victim to thugs, who break into their home, beat people and rape women and girls before getting away with pricy goods. The Bill doesn’t force anyone to abort, but frees those who cannot bear fruits of such sexual assault,” she says.
If it passes, abortion will be legal (1) if the pregnancy results from rape, defilement and incest; (2) if the foetus is too malformed to survive and (3) the pregnancy affects a woman’s mental and physical wellbeing.
“Why should women die from unsafe abortion which could be avoided if health facilities were not only allowed to treat complications but also provide safe abortion. Why a girl should be forced to keep a pregnancy that will torture her for the life?” asks gender activist Emma Kaliya, chairperson of the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (Copua).
But Fr Henry Saindi, spokesperson for Catholic Bishops, says the proposed exceptions smack of “a sinful and unacceptable” foreign agenda for “deliberate termination of a pregnancy, whose only intention is the destruction of a baby either as a result of rape or incest”.
Malawi signed the African Union’s Maputo Protocol to guarantee women access to comprehensive sexual and health services, including safe abortion based on the three conditions.
Dr Chisale Mhango, former director of health services in the Ministry of Health, witnessed the signing of the international treaty embedded in the Gender Equality Act of 2013.
He says: “Malawi will not achieve safe motherhood unless we tackle all major causes of maternal deaths. We have found solutions to HIV and Aids, hypertension and sepsis, but unsafe abortion remains a neglected killer.”