US Catholics funded Malawi opponents of legal abortion in cases of rape

After condemning abortion reform as an imposition of “foreign cultures”, a religious group in Malawi took thousands of dollars in foreign cash

Josephine Chinele
30 March 2021, 8.52am
Kamazu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi
Eva-Lotta Jansson / Alamy Stock Photo. All Rights Reserved.

A Catholic group in Malawi used money from the US to support its campaign against a bill to allow legal abortion in cases of rape – after condemning proposed reforms as an imposition of “foreign cultures”.

The Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), a local assembly of Catholic bishops, received a $30,000 grant from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 2019 for “pastoral animation and advocacy of members of parliament and the laity in political leadership”.

Part of the money was used to lobby members of parliament against the proposed abortion legislation, the ECM’s secretary-general Father Henry Saindi told openDemocracy when asked about the grant.

Lobbying MPs was “entirely a local decision,” he said, but “it so happened that the funding came at a time [when] we were faced with the challenge of the proposed Termination of Pregnancy bill and we engaged [MPs] on this.”

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The 2019 grant came from the USCCB’s Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa. Between 2008 and 2019, EMC received at least 57 grants from this fund, totalling more than $1.8m, according to openDemocracy research.

Most of the money was sent to support church operations, evangelism and building work, but a few grants appear to have been given for political work.

The group received $42,000 for a “pastoral approach” to Malawi's 2019 general elections, and $45,000 to work with Catholic parliamentarians in 2012, according to USCCB annual reports on donations from this Africa fund.

Lives at stake

Malawi has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, in part because of backstreet abortions.

Under a penal code dating from 1930, abortion is legal only if the woman’s life is at risk. Otherwise, a woman who has an abortion faces up to 14 years in prison while the person who performs the abortion faces three years in prison.

In 2013, the government set up a commission to “review the sections of the Penal Code related to abortion to make the law more effective in eliminating abortion deaths” .

The commission’s draft bill, released in 2016, proposed extending legal abortion to cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or if it endangers the woman’s mental health.

‘Many women and girls are dying from unsafe abortion’

Amid “stiff resistance from powerful religious groups”, the bill has had many false starts. Political parties are reportedly reluctant to promote it. Some hoped it would be debated in parliament in 2020, but this didn’t happen.

An independent MP – Matthews Ngwale, a medical doctor who heads parliament’s health committee – is now pushing it as a private member’s bill. However, on 11 March, MPs voted against tabling the bill for discussion – while young people stood outside the building in a show of support for it.

Ngwale told openDemocracy that he is not giving up on the bill, but he has not yet decided when he will bring it back to parliament.

He called on “the women who are feeling the pain” to “come out” and support the bill. “We have a very big problem,” Ngwale told openDemocracy. “Many women and girls are dying from unsafe abortion.”

‘Foreign imposition’

When the draft bill was released in 2016, EMC told people to take to the streets and "tell the world to stop imposing foreign cultures on Malawi”.

“This is a health issue,” insisted Immaculate Maluza, president of Malawi’s Women Lawyers Association, but “most opposition is on religious and moral grounds, claiming this [bill] is a Western thing.”

Perhaps because of this anti-Western attitude, Malawian opponents of abortion reform have downplayed their own relationships to large and powerful foreign groups.

“We don’t have money for this campaign, that’s why we don't have a team of journalists like the pro-choice campaigners,” said Reverend Francis Mkandawire, secretary general of the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), an umbrella organisation for evangelical churches in the country.

“We have just been reaching out to the MPs who decide to be on our side because they subscribe to honesty,” he told openDemocracy.

In 2017, the EAM and the ECM co-hosted a conference in Malawi of the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families (WCF). This global network of US, Russian and other international activists has many ties to Europe’s far right.

This event’s theme was “cultural colonisation” via legal abortion and same-sex marriage. WCF president Brian Brown, from the US, gave a speech accusing the Obama administration of using aid money to force Malawi to accept legal abortion.

In 2020, Human Life International, another US-based group, wrote a letter to its supporters saying “your media campaign smashed an abortion bill in Malawi” and requesting more donations to “arm Malawi”.

This letter said that the group’s local representative, a Malawian priest, heard that the bill was coming and asked for extra money for a media campaign against it. “Your TV and radio programs kept Malawi pro-life,” it boasted.

The WCF also claimed credit for defeating the bill in a 2020 newsletter to its supporters, while the Spain-based group CitizenGo (a WCF partner) also sponsored an anti-abortion rally in Malawi last year.

The USCCB told openDemocracy that it awarded the $30,000 grant to the episcopal conference of Malawi, “based on a request they made to help fund a project that would form lay leaders for the Catholic church in the region.”

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