Nairobi - Malawi's use of evidence-based research to build support for a more liberal stance on abortion can make it a role model for Africa, campaigners said, following publication of a bill to liberalise the country's 164-year-old abortion law.
Abortion is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Malawi, unless it is required to save a woman's life.
This pushes 70 000 Malawian women to have backstreet terminations each year, 31 000 of which result in complications, including death, according to government figures.
The recently published Termination of Pregnancy Bill, which needs parliamentary approval to become law, would make it easier for women to get safe abortions.
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The bill would allow women to terminate pregnancies which result from rape or incest, endanger their lives, may cause mental or physical health complications, or where the foetus is severely malformed.
"Malawi is setting the pace on the African continent towards protecting women and girls," said Jane Serwanga, a lawyer with the rights group Equality Now.
Women's health experts have praised Malawi for gathering evidence as a basis for tackling one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
"I believe that Malawi can be a model to African countries... in terms of being honest and looking for solutions," said Chrispine Sibande, national co-ordinator of the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion.
"It shows that we are committed to addressing issues of women's health, despite different opinions."
'No religious group was left out'
The health ministry drove the reform process by asking the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to help it gather data and research public opinion on the issue.
It found that abortions caused 17% of maternal deaths in Malawi and post-abortion care costed the government $1m a year.
The findings resulted in a 10-member commission being set up in 2013 to rewrite the law, religious and traditional leaders working with legal, medical and government officials to reach a consensus.
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"It has been a technical issue," said Sibande. "It hasn't been associated with any politics."
The Catholic Church has publicly opposed the bill.
"Those who have been raped and found to be pregnant... have to be helped to accept their situation and the gift that God has given them," Henry Saindi, head of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, was quoted as saying in the Nyasa Times.
But Sibande was confident that the bill would be passed.
"No religious group was left out of the process," he said.