Taming death with the law


To Senior Chief Lukwa of Kasungu, chieftainship is not only about issuing instructions to passive subjects. It is about retelling stories about situations that might once have been painful but can be redeemed through rectification.

And one of the stories Lukwa is telling these days is about cases of female subjects who succumb to preventable, pregnancy-related deaths.

“Women have been dying needlessly in this country. I am talking of women who go the extra mile to terminate pregnancy unsafely, even when they know that the route they are taking is dangerous. Women, in both my area and the country at large, have been dying needlessly,” Lukwa says.


He says while he may be more than willing to help the women out, his hands are tied because of the laws in this country.

Pregnancy termination is illegal in Malawi and the predictable outcome has, unfortunately, been too many cases of women dying due to unsafe abortion and little, or no, satisfactory measures put in place to contain the number of deaths.

He blames the situation on gender dynamics.


“In the end, it boils down to Malawi being a male-dominated country despite the population of women being greater than that of men. If it were men dying from unsafe abortion complications, they would have acted a long time ago.

“Whatever the case, we cannot keep on watching while the situation is getting out of hand. We have waited for a long time for justice to be done and the waiting is taking unnecessarily long,” Lukwa says.

He is referring to delays to table the Termination of Pregnancy Bill in Parliament.

He could have a point.

When senior lecturer in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, Dr Chisale Mhango, initiated work on the draft bill while serving as Ministry of Health’s director of reproductive health services, he did not anticipate a long drawn battle like this.

Women were, like, now, dying in droves and something had to be done.

“So, we initiated the process. We knew that we already had high maternal mortality rates in the country [then] and we realised that we could not afford to let the practice of securing unsafe abortions from, often, untrained people continue to rob us of girls and women. We felt that the circumstances we faced called for a certain course of action to be taken,” Mhango says.

In 2009, the Ministry of Health released a report titled ‘Magnitude and Incidences of Unsafe Abortion’ and the results were stunning: Half of 70, 000 women who procure abortion every year were doing so using unsafe means.

“Unfortunately, unsafe means of procuring abortion serve as breeding grounds for death. Ironically, we inherited the laws we use from the colonialists, who have since amended such laws in their countries while we hang on to legislation that fuels death among women and girls. We have to protect our girls and women by legalising the termination of pregnancy. Contrary to what some people think, this will not translate into people seeking abortion services any how because controls will still be there,” Mhango says.

At the moment, academics at College of Medicine have been working on research premised on recording ‘Incidents of Unsafe Abortion in Malawi’. It analyses incidents spanning from 2009 to 2016.

Policy Adviser at the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion, Luke Tembo, observes that conformity with colonial era legislation has had a negative impact on maternal death incidents in the country.

He says, for example, that the country’s love for history [colonial era legislation] is fuelling deaths among women.

“That is why, considering that politicians play a key role in the policy-making process, we have been sensitising them to the need to offer women choices through legislative reforms. We have just held meetings with politicians from the Eastern and Southern [political and not administrative] regions and we are impressed with their response.

“We would like to urge the political leaders to help their seniors understand the situation and support the bill when it goes to Parliament. This is the only way we can save our girls and women from preventable deaths,” Tembo says.

Tembo observes that, as things stand, only the poor are being denied the freedom to remain alive through the procurement of safe abortion means.

“Only women who have the financial means are able to procure safe abortion services while the poor, the ordinary women with no financial muscle, have no choice but to seek unchartered means of securing abortions,” he says.

Most often, it is this come-what-may behaviour among distraught women that reads to a brush with death or permanent injury.

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