“This is the first time I’ll eat beef in months,” she says while stirring the dough in the pot. She’s making nsima which she will take with beef. Beef does not usually feature on her menu due to her meagre income. However, money wasn’t the reason she hadn’t taken meat for so long. She refrained from consuming beef because her stomach couldn’t hold it. She was unable to eat beef because her hormones conformed to the common procedure of a pregnant woman.
The foetus is now gone — aborted. She can enjoy beef again.
“I can’t wait to eat,” she proclaims, smiling with the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas. But she’s far from an innocent child. She’s a 21-year-old commercial sex worker.
She doesn’t want to be identified in the article. She wants to keep her identity a secret. So, she’ll go by the alias of Sarah.
Sarah eventually finishes cooking and eats. It was worth the wait. The taste of beef satisfies her stomach. It’s been three weeks since she had the abortion.
“I’m lucky,” she explains. “I know another girl who had an abortion and she had a fever for weeks. I feel fine.”
Sarah finishes eating and begins washing the plates. She lives in Ndirande Township, Blantyre. Her house is perched along a sloping, precipitous hill where hundreds of little houses are stacked with the kind of arrangement that resembles a small child tossing his toys all over the floor. It’s chaos.
There are no roads here; just paths through people’s “yards”. There is no sanitation system — just holes dug in the ground; measures that are unable to stop snaking streams of stinking sewage from running amok.
Sarah lives alone in a tiny house that contains two rooms that are barely bigger than a cubicle in a public toilet.
We sit on the porch of Sarah’s little house, overlooking the vast slum of Ndirande Township below. The screams of playing children, the clangs of manual labour tools and the sound of Nigerian dance music blaring from makeshift taverns, fill the air.
This “ghetto” in Blantyre seems to have its own symphony — a manifestation of overt DNA that is brandished proudly.
“I pay K5,000 a month for rent,” Sarah continues. “I have no husband. No real job. This is what I thought when I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t even have to take a test to find out. I just started vomiting and rejecting food I usually liked. That’s when I knew but, still, going to the hospital was worse, because that’s where it became real. I knew I didn’t want the child. There was never a moment I felt that I wanted the baby.”
Sarah’s pregnancy didn’t happen on the job.
“I always use condoms when I’m working,” she says with an air of staunch defiance, shaking her head as if she’s been accused of doing the contrary.
“In Malawi? You’d be crazy not to use condoms. I didn’t become pregnant with a random client. I became pregnant with a man I was in a relationship with. I’m never, ever, going to have sex without condoms again. I was stupid to let my last boyfriend convince me to do it without any protection.”
Sarah’s story is one that repeats itself in Malawi. And not just from a story perspective, but also a data perspective. There seems to be a preconceived notion that the females who have abortions are nothing but careless, loose and single young girls. But the data inform us of the contrary.
In 2009, the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics conducted a study on the topic of the safety of abortions undertaken in Malawi. Most of the women who have abortions are, in fact, not young urban women who simply like to party or to get paid for sex. Most of the women who have abortions are married (80 percent of them have tied the knot). They are females who have had children and decided they want no more. These women are usually in the 18-24 age range — and they tend to originate from impoverished rural areas.
“I paid K12,000 for the abortion,” Sarah says casually.
Her nonchalance at the fee is initially surprising. She reveals that she usually charges a client K3,000 for having sex with her. And, on a regular night, it’s rare that she’ll sleep with more than two clients.
“Sometimes it can happen, especially at the end of the month,” Sarah muses. “But it’s rare. A lot of times I actually go home empty-handed.”
She pauses and contemplates for a moment. “Paying K12,000 hurt a lot but, in the long run, it helped me save a lot.”
Economic status is one of the common features in discussions about abortion. It’s no surprise that the statistics reveal that those who are at the bottom of the economic rung are the ones who are most likely to have abortions.
“What annoys me is that the people who say we are devils for procuring abortions are the same ones who will shout at us for having children we can’t raise,” Sarah says.
The topic of abortion has been a contentious one of late. There was an outcry from the religious community in the wake of rumours to the effect that the government was contemplating tabling a bill that would legalise abortion — something the government fervently refuted.
Thousands of animated protesters (a mixture of Catholics and other Christians) took to the streets to vent their anger and displeasure all over Malawi. The dramatic display was somewhat futile. Protesting abortion in Malawi is akin to protesting the possibility of the legalisation of marijuana — abortion laws are restrictive while marijuana is illegal. Ironically, both are widely practiced.
According to the Penal Code of 1930 (Sections 149-151), the performance of abortions is generally illegal. A person who unlawfully uses any means with intent to procure an abortion is subject to a prison sentence of 14 years.
A pregnant woman who unlawfully uses any means, or permits the use of such means with intent to procure her own abortion, is subject to seven years’ imprisonment. A person who unlawfully supplies or procures anything whatever, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure an abortion, faces a sentence of three years in jail.
Nevertheless, Section 243 of the Penal Code decrees that abortion is legal when a woman’s life is danger and the removal of the foetus is the only way to preserve life.
Malawi is a nation that is gripped with the disease of utilising theory, not practice. And this couldn’t be more applicable regarding the grounds of abortion. About 95 percent of women procure abortions in hospitals, NGO facilities and for-profit clinics not because their lives are at risk.
And the medical staff providing the means for termination don’t bother asking questions when a woman wants an abortion. They merely perform it. The government — which righteously espouses the law that prohibits abortion in Nyasaland — doesn’t regulate a law it is supposed to enforce.
“I paid money at a private clinic for my abortion,” Sarah says. “They didn’t ask me why I wanted the abortion or whether I was at risk. They just allowed me to pay and [they] did their job.”
The legalisation of abortion will formalise, rather than activate, a phenomenon that is already widespread. The medical practitioners in many Malawian facilities have already ensured that a lot of women can terminate pregnancy without being on the receiving end of an interrogation.
However, abortion remains heavily stigmatised in the country, and there are women who either cannot afford a private clinic or are too scared to visit a public clinic. These women often seek out unscrupulous individuals to perform backroom abortions, and such desperate decisions can lead to serious medical complications or death. If any group of females would benefit from the legalisation of abortion in Malawi, it would be the aforementioned category.
“Life begins at conception,” argues Wisdom Banda, a young but passionate evangelist. “Life doesn’t begin when the child emerges from the womb. It begins at conception and no one can say otherwise. To murder a child is a great sin that is unforgivable in the eyes of both God and man. A lot of this has to do with Western values ruining our culture.”
Sarah’s inexpensive phone contains a small library of music. Most of the music is gospel. Sarah seems adept with the art of compartmentalisation.
“I believe in God,” she explains. She’s made eye contact throughout the interview. Her gaze is now far off. “But my circumstances also leave me with no choice. If I don’t go to bars at night, I go hungry.” She picks up a small rock and begins to fiddle with it. She refuses to make eye contact. “It’s easy for other women to say we shouldn’t have abortions. They have husbands who earn good money. I have none.”
When asked whether rape were acceptable grounds for abortion, Banda’s pro-life stance remains firm. “Rape is a very unfortunate thing to happen to anyone. It’s horrible. But I still don’t agree that, even in that circumstance, abortion should be allowed. Each human life is a gift. Westernisation is killing us. Europe gives us homosexuality and abortion. God hates this.”
There is a tinge of irony in Banda’s belief of westernisation being responsible for the supposed corruption of Malawians, thus condemning us in the eyes of God. Christianity wasn’t founded in Africa. It was brought to Africa by Europeans.
Our ancestors didn’t believe in Christianity. They didn’t even know it existed. So one can argue against Banda’s assertion by stating that the religious values he upholds are being destroyed weren’t ours to begin with — they came from the very same people he accuses of corrupting us.
My interview with Sarah is cut short. She has a few errands to run before the sun sets — before she embarks on her quest to secure at least K3,000, an equivalent of £3 and $4. It’s the middle of the month – there’s not as much money for a commercial sex worker during this period. But Sarah isn’t worried.
“It’s December,” she assures me. “Christmas is coming. This is the best month.”
Sarah’s strength is pragmatism. She assesses a situation and then acts on the conclusion she has formulated. She doesn’t allow emotion to supersede her perception of logic. And her logic, her reality, states that selling her body is the only way she can scrape together some kind of living.
Sarah lays out a red miniskirt and a black tank top on the bed. It’s what she plans on wearing tonight. She explains that the miniskirt has helped her lure a lot of clients in the past — in the same manner a banker would discuss how his brilliant scheme caused him to make the bank some profits.
“If I had money, I wouldn’t have had an abortion. But I knew I couldn’t bring a child into this world, not in my situation.” She pauses, thinks for a moment. “No, I wouldn’t have done it if I had money.”
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