AN estimated 70 000 abortions are carried out annually in Zimbabwe amid fears that hundreds of women could be dying from illegally terminating pregnancies in backyards.
BY SOPHIA MAPURANGA
Sharon (21) of Unit J in Seke is lucky to be alive, while Shirley (22) from Zengeza 1 had it fairly easy when both took the rocky road of abortion.
While Sharon, an aspiring lawyer, shakes her head and her facial expression becomes sombre as she recounts the ordeal that almost took her life, for Shirley, on the other hand, it was a walk in the park.
“It was an issue of a procedure gone wrong,” said Sharon, explaining how the “self-styled traditional healer” she turned to in her “hour of need” inserted what she said was a root, but turned out to be a stick, in her privates and pricked her womb in an effort to induce abortion of the three-week-old foetus.
“I bled until I was unconscious and all I recall is waking up in hospital,” she said.
Shirley, who aborted three pregnancies using a drug she bought from a friend, a medical practitioner, at a cost of $150, has a different take from her own experiences.
“It is very easy,” she said with no compunction.
“I drink the pill and in less than an hour, I start feeling pain and I know that I am sorted.”
An aborted foetus that is less than 12 weeks old, according to Shirley, is flushed down the toilet.
Another Harare woman’s 19-year-old sister was, however, not so lucky.
She died during an abortion gone awry, but the family kept the matter under wraps.
As a God-fearing family, an unwanted pregnancy is the last thing they wanted to be associated with, and neither is abortion, considering their implications on the family’s values and principles.
“The worst part of it is she aborted using traditional medicines and the woman that gave her the concoction disappeared,” the woman said, recounting how her sister’s privates excreted a “green-like fluid” after the botched abortion.
She said the family only got to know about the failed procedure when it was already too late, as her late sibling had stayed in her room and concealed the pregnancy.
Abortion in Zimbabwe is illegal under the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 [Chapter 15:10], but there has been an increasing demand over the last few years, according to statistics from the Health and Child Care ministry.
Although Health minister David Parirenyatwa could not give exact figures when contacted for comment, he admitted that unintended pregnancies were very high among youths aged between 17 and 24.
“We know that there is quite a high degree in terms of abortions in the country,” he said, adding that his ministry was aware that the upsurge in child abuse cases and early sexual debut among girls contributed to the high incidence of unwanted pregnancies and abortion.
In 2012, the number of women seeking post-abortion care services at clinics and hospitals rose five-fold when the then Health minister Henry Madzorera said health practitioners were no longer required to refer women seeking post-abortion care services to the police.
A study carried out at Harare Central Hospital in 2014 showed that at least 2 000 women aged between 17 and 25 years sought post-abortion care services at the health institution, while at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, an average of 100 women and girls visited the health centre for the same services.
Advocates for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of, especially students and youths, attribute the rampant demand for abortion to poverty, inaccessibility of contraceptives and poor sex education.
Students and Youths Working on Reproductive Health Action Team director Jimmy Wilford said there was need for government to ensure youths had access to quality and affordable reproductive health services.
“Issues of confidentiality are very important because there are cases when health workers violate their code of conduct, especially at tertiary institutions,” he said.
It has been reported that at least 10 foetuses make their way to the sewer plant at Morton Jaffray Waterworks in Harare daily.
Harare City Council waste water manager Simon Muserere said 50% of the sewage problems experienced in Harare were a result of misuse of the sewer lines by citizens.
“Residents flush all sorts of things down the sewer pipes and we get more than 10 foetuses daily,” he said.
Muserere disclosed that sometimes, they had to engage the police to dispose of the foetuses because they would be “well developed babies”.
A 23-year-old college student, who identified herself as Talent, said she underwent the procedure when she was in her fifth week.
“My boyfriend is married and when I told him about the pregnancy, he pushed me to abort after telling me that he did not have the guts to tell his wife about me and the baby,” she narrated.
Talent said she realised the predicament she was in and took a drug called Misoprostol after parting with $300 at a surgery in Harare.
“There are networks in town that are in that business (of abortion), but they are discreet,” she said, adding that the procedure took almost two hours before she started bleeding.
“I was scared at first, but the drug simply facilitates early labour and before I knew it, the abortion was done.”
She said she took antibiotics for the next seven days as a precaution against infections.
A doctor at a surgery in Chitungwiza, Clarice Hungwe, said the most common abortion procedure was taking medication, particularly Misoprostol, within the seven to nine weeks of pregnancy.
“The drug increases uterine contractions and this causes the uterus to expel everything in it,” she explained.
Hungwe said surgical abortion, also known as suction or vacuum curettage, was another method that could be used to terminate a pregnancy.
“This involves using a suction device to remove the contents of a pregnant woman’s uterus, but this should be done by experienced health personnel considering its risks to a woman’s life,” she said.
Another medical doctor, David Moyo, said although serious complications occured in mostly late term abortions, women exposed themselves to serious health risks, including heavy or persistent bleeding, infection or sepsis, damage to the cervix and scarring of the uterine lining.
“Sometimes they use sharp objects and they damage or perforate the uterus or they end up damaging other organs,” he said.
A dean of students at a tertiary institution in Harare said abortion was common among students, although most of them kept it a secret and the assumption was that they did it at home for fear of arrest.
“I am sure that those that do it prefer the privacy of their homes because the law is clear that abortion is a criminal offence,” she said.
Another dean of students at an institution in Midlands said the availability of abortion drugs on the black market fuelled the practice.
He said because drug networks were now targeting institutions of higher learning as the market for their illegal drugs, students had become more vulnerable to illicit and expired abortion pills.
“There is no one to establish the authenticity of the drugs because they are not only illegal, but they are a health risk to the students,” he said.
“The Zimbabwean law is clear that abortion is a punishable offence which attracts a maximum sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.”
The Constitution provides that “an Act of Parliament must protect the lives of unborn children, and that Act must provide that pregnancy may be terminated only in accordance with that law”.
Unlike in neighbouring South Africa — where the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act was amended in 1997 to legalise the provision of abortion on demand to any woman as long as the pregnancy was less than 20 weeks — abortion remains illegal in Zimbabwe.
It is only permissible, according to the Termination of Pregnancy Act, in a situation where there is a serious risk that the child to be born would suffer from a physical or mental defect such as to be severely handicapped, where there is a reasonable possibility that the foetus is conceived as a result of unlawful intercourse, such as rape, incest or intercourse with a mentally challenged woman, or when the continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.
Real Opportunities Empowerment Trust director Beatrice Savadye emphasised the importance of economically empowering young women and girls as a solution to their reproductive and health challenges.
“Poverty has ripple effects on the decisions made by young women,” she said.
“Sometimes, they are pressured to abort because of their circumstances, some of which include harmful cultural practices that expose them to early sexual debut.”