More than 50 officials from churches around Malawi came together last week to endorse a law that decreases the country’s restrictions on abortion access. After a two-day-long discussion and meetings with medical experts, the leaders expressed enthusiastic optimism that the faith community would endorse the reformed abortion laws in an effort to protect women and girls from the harms of unsafe abortions.
Faith leaders from the Malawi Council of Churches discussed the Maternal Health, Human Rights and Abortion law reform initially proposed by the 11 political parties of Malawi in September 2015. The legal reforms would extend abortion exceptions beyond solely saving the life of a woman to cases of rape, mental imbalance, and incest. During the meetings, faith leaders explored research on the pandemic of unsafe abortions in Malawi with high hopes of engaging their denominations in proposed solutions for Malawi’s critical maternal health crisis.
The support of the Malawian faith community comes as incredible news for health experts and activists that have celebrated the proposal’s effort to promote the health and safety of women.
Malawi has one of the highest maternal mortality rates. Every day 16 Malawian women die due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Approximately 70,000 Malawian women risk their lives to have unsafe abortions every year, and 31,000 of those attempts result in serious complications or death. Half of those who face health complications are women under the age of 25. Because of the country’s restrictive laws and cultural taboos around women’s reproductive rights, nearly all Malawian women face immense obstacles to basic healthcare and family planning options.
Under Malaw’s laws, women and girls are not just left untreated and without real options, but are actually criminalized for seeking help. Malawi’s current abortion laws are some of the strictest and most punitive in the entire world. They punish any woman who seeks an abortion, and any person who helps a woman procure an abortion, with a 14-year jail sentence. Women who are found to have “induced miscarriages” can spend up to seven years in jail. When they are not legally prosecuted for having an abortion, the churches’ outspoken condemnation leaves women who seek abortion services ostracized from their communities.
The recent discussions about abortion reform have made many church officials—arguably the most powerful leaders in the predominantly Christian country—recognize the importance of addressing this maternal health crisis. It has led many leaders to commit to shifting the perception of abortion in the country.
“It is necessary for the church to consider adding new grounds on which safe abortions can be allowed. We want to sensitize the faith community on grounds to provide safe abortions,” the Acting General Secretary of Malawi Council of Churches Bishop Matonga said following the Council’s decision.
Of course even after the reform bill passes, Malawi would still have a long way to go before truly protecting the reproductive rights of the country’s women. Even with the abortion reform, women would still not have unrestricted access to abortion, which is a crucial component of promoting women’s health and fostering gender equality. However, if passed, this reform bill would be an unprecedented move in Malawi and could save the lives of thousands.
Malawian officials—both government and religious—have a responsibility to protect the reproductive rights and prevent the unnecessary deaths of women and girls constantly at risk of unsafe abortions. In a country where abortion, contraception, and sex have long been taboo subjects, it is vital that both the religious and government institutions unite to alter public opinion. This will pave the way for providing reproductive health care for the country’s most marginalized women.