Young activists at the "She Decides" march against sexual violence in Lilongwe, Malawi, on March 2, 2020.
Young activists at the "She Decides" march against sexual violence in Lilongwe, Malawi, on March 2, 2020.

BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Malawi's National Assembly has rejected a motion to debate liberalizing the country's strict law against abortion, which is only allowed if the mother's life is at risk.  Despite thousands of Malawian women dying each year from unsafe abortions, lawmakers on Thursday unanimously rejected a motion to debate the long-delayed Termination of Pregnancy Bill.    

The bill, pushed by activists since 2015, aimed to expand legal abortion from cases where the mother’s life is at risk to include rape, incest, fetal deformity, and threats to health. 

The debate on Thursday, though, never even started.  

“What they have done is to deny even discussing it," said Richard Chimwendo Banda, Minister of Homeland Security and a member of prliament. "Which means you can’t force the members.  They don’t want it.  Actually, there was no single ‘yes.’  Out of all members in parliament, all of them refused.”

A group of about 50 female activists demonstrated outside Malawi’s parliament Thursday in support of the bill before the debate was rejected.  

Gender activist Titani Magalasi was among them.  She says they’re not giving up. 

“Just because it was not tabled this week, it doesn’t mean actually, it doesn’t mean that it has been defeated," Magalasi said.  "Because it never actually came onto the table meaning that we still we can even push for next week as private members’ bills are always tabled on Thursdays. So next week Thursday, be assured to see us back there in our numbers fighting for the same bill to be tabled.”

However, Banda said that, judging from Thursday’s reaction, he doubts lawmakers will debate the bill during the current sitting of parliament, which ends March 26.   

The current 160-year-old law criminalizes abortion, unless the mother’s life is in danger, with offenders facing up to 14 years in jail. 

Critics say the law leads to more than 140,000 backstreet abortions annually that cause 12,000 deaths, according to a joint study by Malawi’s College of Medicine and the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute.  

Countless other Malawian women are left permanently scarred.  

Jessie Ching’oma is a board member of the Gender Coordination Network, which has been pushing for changing the law.

“It’s unfortunate that we are continuing delaying the process," Ching'oma said. "If status quo continues, it means women and girls will continue having unsafe abortion[s], which is a violation of their rights.”

The bill was to be debated last year but was dropped because of widespread opposition from conservative and religious groups, who consider all abortions to be murder.