Local Catholic bishops received money from their US counterparts to lobby Parliament to reject a proposed law that would allow abortion in limited cases, including rape.
The Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) condemns the Termination of Pregnancy Bill as evidence of “foreign cultures” imposed on Malawians.
However, the ECM took $30 000 (some K22.5 million) from the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference for what it called “pastoral animation and advocacy of members of Parliament (MPs) and the laity in political leadership”.
The money was partly used to lobby lawmakers to reject the proposed abortion law, ECM secretary-general Fr Henry Saindi admitted to Open Democracy when asked about the grant.
“It so happened that the funding came at a time we were faced with the challenge of the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill and we engaged them on this,” he said.
Saindi, however, argued that engaging MPs on the law was “entirely a local decision”.
The grant came from the Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference (USCCB).
Between 2008 and 2019, ECM received at least 56 grants totalling over $1.8 million from this fund. Most of the money was sent to support church operations, evangelisation and construction work, but occasionally bankrolled political work.
This was the third time in this period. The local bishops received $42 000 in 2018, for a “pastoral approach” to the general elections and $45 000 to work with Catholic parliamentarians in 2012.
The ECM used foreign money in its campaign against the abortion bill even though three years earlier, it had rallied Malawians to take to the streets and march “to tell the world to stop imposing foreign cultures in Malawi”.
Although the law was first drafted in 2016 by the Law Commission set up by Malawi Government, “most opposition is on religious and moral grounds, claiming this is a Western thing,” says Immaculate Maluza, President of Malawi’s Women Lawyers Association.
Campaigners opposed to the Bill claim that it smacks of a foreign agenda by the West, but an array of international right-wing organisations, including the World Congress of Families (WCF), CitizenGo and Human Life International, have claimed responsibility for the Bill’s setbacks
Last December, Human Life International, a US-based Catholic anti-abortion organisation, wrote to its supporters saying, “your media campaign smashed an abortion Bill in Malawi”.
The online letter says that when a Malawian priest heard from an MP that the Bill was going to Parliament, he asked donors for “extra funds for a media campaign against the Bill,” and subsequently rolled out radio and TV messages. “Your TV and radio programmes kept Malawi pro-life,” the letter boasts, asking donors to send more money to “arm Malawi”.
The Madrid-based CitizenGo, which has links to rightwing European extremists, sponsored an anti-abortion rally in October 2020, while the WCF also claimed credit for defeating the Bill in a newsletter sent out to supporters in late December.
But Malawian opponents of the Bill have tried to downplay the big foreign anti-abortion campaigners’ influence.
“We don’t have money for this campaign that’s why we don’t have a team of journalists like the pro-choice campaigners,” says the Reverend Francis Mkandawire, the secretary general for Evangelical Association of Malawi, an ECM ally in the 2016 nationwide march against the Bill.
“We have just been reaching out to the MPs who decide to be on our side because they subscribe to honesty,” he claims.
Under Malawi’s 1930 Penal Code, abortion is illegal unless the woman’s life is at risk and it carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison.
In 2013, the government set up a law commission to review abortion laws in line with international agreements on maternal health.
The commission released its report and a draft Termination of Pregnancy bill in March 2016. It proposed law to expand abortion access to cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or it endangers the pregnant woman’s mental health.
But amid stiff resistance from the country’s religious groups, the Bill has had many false starts.
Scarcely a year after the Bill was published, the ultra-conservative WCF held a conference in Malawi in late 2017 on the theme of Western Cultural Colonisation via Abortion and Same-sex Marriages.
The ECM and the EAM co-hosted the conference at which WCF president Brian Brown accused the Barack Obama presidency in the US of using aid to force Malawi to accept abortion.
Although the Bill was first drafted by a government commission, Chiradzulu West legislator Mathews Ngwale has been moving it forward as a private member’s Bill
Political parties are reportedly wary of promoting it. Last year, there were indications that it would be tabled before Parliament closed for the year. Parliament closed without tackling it. On March 11, legislators opted against tabling the Bill, even as young people stood outside the Parliament Building in a show of support for it.
Ngwale heads the Health Committee of Parliament. He told open Democracy that he is not giving up on the Bill, but said he has not yet decided on when he brings it back for discussion in Parliament.
He called on “the women who are feeling the pain” to “come out” and support it.
“We have a very big problem at hand. Many women and girls are dying from unsafe abortion,” he said.
MPs’ rejection of the Bill infringes on women’s right to health, Maluza, of the Women Lawyers Association says. “This is a health issue.”
Malawi has high maternal mortality rate driven partly by backstreet abortions. Teenage girls are particularly affected. By the age of 18, almost one-third of Malawian girls have given birth, according to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey.
Meanwhile, a 2009 Ministry of Health study in the country’s hospitals found there were around 67,300 abortions that year, or 23 abortions per 1,000 Malawian women aged 15 to 44.n
Reporting for this story was supported by openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project.