to the editors
In 1984, when I was in primary school, Rosemary (not her name), a fellow classmate, passed away. The news shocked the whole class. At our age, death didn’t seem possible. A few days later, the headmaster spoke to us at the school assembly. He said Rosemary had “played” inappropriately with boys and become pregnant. And she died because she had attempted to abort the pregnancy. It was a big relief to us to realise that she, in fact, “deserved to die”. How could she do that?
We never thought about the man who had caused the pregnancy, why she became pregnant, and why she attempted an abortion. Today, 35 years later, as a specialist gynaecologist and a man, it is clear to me that men must ask those tough questions if we are to stop unnecessary deaths from illegal and dangerous abortions.
Early on in my career, when I encountered women who died or suffered injuries due to unsafe abortions and sexual abuse, I blamed them. I believed it was their own fault for not sticking to societal values of chastity prior to marriage. I was the product of a patriarchal society that prescribed higher moral standards for girls than boys.
Our society still expects girls to be married as virgins. To do otherwise brings shame on themselves and their families. But in this male-driven value system, boys and men are not similarly judged for their sexual activity. They can have sex at any age and have as many partners as they wish.
In the end, women suffer two-fold: not only are they subject to this double standard, they are also denied access to sexual and reproductive health care and choices. The result is that 40% of pregnancies in Zimbabwe are unintended and a quarter of these end as induced abortions. Twenty percent of induced abortions end up with severe complications that threaten the women’s lives.
If we’re going to reduce the number of abortions in Zimbabwe — about 65 000 abortions in 2016 — men need to take part in this story. We need male champions in our society to fight for reproductive justice for women. If we continue to judge silently and sit on the sidelines in fear of what might happen if we speak out, we will ultimately realise that the worst is already happening: Young women are getting pregnant, induced abortions are harming and killing them, and young girls are being sexually exploited.
Here’s what our men can do.
Religious and cultural leaders should focus on saving women’s lives, not shaming them. Ethiopia offers one example of such leadership. There, Archbishop Abune Markos championed the fight against gender-based violence and child marriages. Rather than condone such practices, he has trained hundreds of religious and community leaders to educate their communities about the harms these practices cause. As a result, in the course of just six months, community members have prevented nearly 470 child marriages in two districts.
But more needs to happen in Zimbabwe and other African countries with high rates of unsafe abortion. Our religious and cultural leaders must act to save women’s lives. They should encourage early childhood sexual and reproductive health education and access to non-stigmatised friendly health services. In village and church meetings, they should share stories of girls like Rosemary who died because they were denied access to sexual and reproductive health. They must know that rigid legal restrictions to abortion do not prevent abortions, but rather promote unsafe abortions and consequently injure and kill women.
In addition to religious leaders, other male role models, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and sports stars, can help spread positive messages about sexual and reproductive health by standing up for their mothers, daughters and sisters.
Already, several male organisations in Zimbabwe are fighting for gender equity. Mugota is a male students’ organisation that encourages young men to respect young women as their equals. Padare is a male organisation that addresses issues such as gender-based violence, HIV and Aids, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Their work should be publicised in the media and supported by society.
Finally, our male politicians must demand implementation of legislation that guarantees women — our fellow citizens — equal rights as enshrined in the Constitution. Religious and cultural beliefs remain an impediment to many of these initiatives. Hence the need for strong political will to guarantee access to non-stigmatised care and to propel a shift away from customs that undermine women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Every woman must be supported in her reproductive health choices and not punished or denied access. Male champions can save the lives of women dying from poor sexual and reproductive health care by overcoming socio-religious-cultural barriers that rob women of their full humanity.
Mugove G Madziyire
l Mugove Gerald Madziyire is a consultant and lecturer at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences. He is an Aspen New Voices Fellow.