BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Abortion is illegal in Malawi, unless the mother's life is at risk, but that doesn't stop an estimated 140,000 women per year having unsafe terminations that leave 12,000 women dead and countless others permanently scarred. Despite these numbers, efforts to liberalize current abortion laws are facing resistance from conservative groups.
After getting pregnant at age 17, “Melita” – not her real name – saw abortion as her only option to stay in school.
But Malawi’s 160-year-old abortion law only allows termination to save the life of a mother.
So Melita went to a witchdoctor.
She says a few hours after taking a concoction of herbs, she started bleeding heavily. The pain felt around my cervix was unbearable, says Metlia, and I started crying while rolling on the floor.
Melita’s uterus had ruptured and had to be removed.
Though she can no longer have children, Melita knows she was lucky.
I have heard stories of women dying from back street abortions, she says. So, after experiencing persistent abdominal pain and bleeding, says Malita, I was very scared that I would also die.
Research by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute and the Malawi College of Medicine shows 140,000 Malawian women have unsafe abortions each year.
The dangerous procedures leave about 12,000 of them dead and countless survivors, like Melita, permanently scarred.
Campaigners have since 2015 been pushing a bill on expanding legal abortions to cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and threats to health.
“There are three additional grounds that are there. When enacted, the new law will allow women who face physical and mental dangers to their lives to access abortion,” said Brian Ligomeka who is with the Safe Abortion Campaign group
But protests in 2016 from conservative and religious groups, who call any abortion murder, delayed debate on the bill.
"God considers life from conception, said Pastor Zacc Kawalala, a church leader in Blantyre. "God knows you while you are in your mother’s womb. God places you in your womb. And the Bible also tells us in Jeremiah chapter 20 that thanks to God the womb of my mother was not my grave. If somebody dies before they are born it’s like the womb was their grave.”
Malawi’s lawmakers are expected to finally debate the bill before the current parliamentary session ends on March 26.