By Karen Sanje:
Being a beneficiary of a bursary scheme for her education, falling pregnant pointed to only one thing for Janet; she was going to be deleted from the list of those having their fees paid for.
So, when that unfortunate thing happened, all that she had in mind was how to terminate the pregnancy, nothing else. Being a beneficiary of the bursary was such a precious privilege to let go that the fate for the pregnancy was not negotiable.
But with the laws governing issues of abortion in Malawi being so restrictive, that process was never going to be undertaken by any skilled health worker.
Help from herbalist backstreet was the only solution. Thankfully, at least, her mother was at hand to assist albeit neither of them realised the dangers of the action they were venturing into.
Janet developed complications that forced her to, for a while, stop thinking about the fearsome laws that forced her to go backstreet in the first place.
“What could I have done?” she asked as she sat on a hospital bed in Mzuzu. “The bursary I am on is something not many are privileged to access. And if they struck me off that list, there is nowhere to find fees to complete my education,” she said.
In Malawi, sections 149, 150 and 243 of the penal code restricts the right of women and girls to an abortion as they criminalise seeking, assisting to seek and providing abortion services.
The laws were designed during the time Malawi was still under colonial rule, but are still being used after the end of that colonial rule.
The archaic laws still have potency to crack on women and girls that seek procureent of and procure abortion services, those that assist them in seeking the abortions and personnel that provide such services.
Personnel prosecuted for providing abortion services include trained medical practitioners, who provide safe clinical service, and herbalists whose service is often crude and leads to complications.
“I did not want to seek such services from trained medical personnel because I was scared they would report me to police. My friend was arrested because she was not successful with her abortion and ended up at the hospital where she was arrested after treatment,” said Janet.
Activists pushing for abortion law reform in the country say these laws are just victimising those that cannot afford to pay for such services because research has shown that it is the poor that are quite often caught in this web.
The group caught in this web are school-going girls who have turned to backstreet abortions for fear of their parents’ anger and reprimand or losing their place in school.
A magnitude study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the Centre for Reproductive Health at the Malawi College of Medicine reveals that up to 64.4 percent of those procuring unsafe abortions are female learners based in rural areas.
Malawi’s rural areas are where most of the poor live. It is also in the rural areas that options on health facilities are limited and private health facilities, where those that have the money to pay for safe abortions go for such services, do not exist.
The study established that in 2015 alone 141,044 women aborted, representing an annual abortion rate of 38 abortions per 1,000 women. Most of these women were those aged between 15 and 49.
The activists say this is evidence that regardless of how restrictive the country’s abortion laws may be, women and girls will continue seeking and procuring abortions.
A gynaecologist Dr Chisale Mhango says many unsafe abortions result in complications that required medical treatment.
“Overall, 53 percent of pregnancies in Malawi [in the year] were unintended, and 30 percent of those ended in abortions,” the research findings indicate.
Although the country stands by its restrictive abortion laws and policies, it keeps spending huge sums of money annually on treating complications of unsafe abortions as was the case with Janet.
This leaves one with a question as to whether the country should continue with its restrictive abortion laws and be losing the money or flex them and save the money.
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