Calls for expanded abortion options intensify

A general view taken on March 26, 2015 in Nairobi shows the Kenyan parliament, as President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses two Houses the Senate and the National Assembly. President Kenyatta's speech comes against the backdrop of rising corruption and insecurity in the country. AFP PHOTO/SIMON MAINA (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

BY PHYLLIS MBANJE

PARLIAMENTARIANS and women rights defenders have been calling for inclusion of access to safe abortion in the health budget as a choice aimed at reducing maternal deaths.

Dubbed Pro-choice, the initiative offers reprieve to thousands of women countrywide, who do not want to carry their pregnancies to full term for varied reasons. This group includes those with serious medical conditions, those living with disabilities and even young people.

Abortion in Zimbabwe is only legal under Section 4 of the Termination of Pregnancy Act (Top), which states that termination of a foetus is legal only when the life of the mother and her physical health is threatened or where there is a risk that the child to be born will suffer from physical or mental defects of such a nature that it would be permanently or seriously handicapped.

Illegal abortions are tried under the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act and the offenders, if found guilty, are liable to a fine not exceeding level 10 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or both.

However, the topic of abortion has been nothing more than a moral crusade, with empirical evidence and data being muzzled by stigma.

At recently held meetings attended by parliamentarians and convened by the Women Action Group (WAG) from the health, education, justice and tertiary and committee, shocking data revealed that a third of the maternal deaths, which are nearly 3 000 every year, were due to unsafe abortions, which are clandestinely carried out in the backyards of most highly populated suburbs in Harare.

That over 65 000 women die simply because they cannot access safe abortion services is an affront to human rights as enshrined in the Constitution.

Health ministry’s director of family health, Bernard Madzima told legislators that the issue of abortion had become a major drawback in reducing maternal deaths.

“A fifth of the total maternal deaths are unsafe abortions, surely that is too huge a figure to ignore,” he said.

The 2016 national adolescent fertility study by the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) showed that 9% of adolescents between 10 and 19 years have fallen pregnant. These pregnancies sometimes end up as unsafe abortions and also deaths for some.

Maternal deaths (651 per 100 000 live births) in Zimbabwe remain a huge burden and stakeholders are keen to exhaust all contributory factors, including the sticky issue of abortion.

“My body, my choice” has become a trending phrase that aptly describes the topical issues that surround this emotive subject, which has been repeatedly tabled, but no meaningful consensus reached.

Female legislators highlighted that the decision should come from women. But they were concerned that their male counterparts dominated such conversations and ultimately make decisions for women.

They said often the issue was on “murdering a foetus”, but disregarding the choice of a woman over her body.

Another sticky area is the legislation which no longer conforms to the current changes taking place in the communities, where the unsafe abortions are carried out.

The 1977 law was said to be too restrictive and the process cumbersome for the survivors of
rape.

When one engages in sex, people are not bothered, but when one gets raped you are made to move from office to the other being traumatised, the legislators said.

They also suggested that the court and police process must be cut off and the termination of pregnancy for rape survivors be done as early as possible.

The issue of delays was raised at a one-stop centre in Chipinge for gender-based violence (GBV), with some of the victims ending up keeping the pregnancy because the process was too complicated and took long to conclude.

The administrator at Gender-Based Violence Centre, Catherine Tumburuku said: “This is what this centre is trying to do, because there are many requirements that need to be met before one can be granted permission to have the abortion and sadly it is often too late for some women.”

Rwanda and Ethiopia have reviewed their policies and women can now access safe abortions without complications. This reduces maternal deaths and expenses.

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