Reproductive justice for Zimbabwean women

Guest column: Malvern Tatenda Chiweshe

MARITA is an 11-year-old girl from Epworth in Harare, Zimbabwe. She does not go to school as both her parents died of HIV two years ago. The uncle who took her in has been raping her since the day she moved in with them. As I talk to her, I can hear the innocence in her voice. I hold back tears as she tells me how the nurses at her local clinic could not allow her to get an abortion after she found out that she was pregnant. A neighbour had noticed her bulging stomach and taken her to the clinic were the head nurse told them that the law did not allow her to have an abortion. Now nine months pregnant, she asks me what she should do. Her aunt has thrown her out after she reported her uncle to the police.

Unfortunately, Marita’s case is not an isolated one. Many adolescents in her situation are forced to keep pregnancies despite the law in Zimbabwe allowing abortions for certain criteria.

The Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 allows abortion for rape, incest, fetal abnormality and to save a woman’s life. Yet despite this many like Marita, who have every legal right to access an abortion in a State health facility, are denied.

In Marita’s case it was by clinic staff, in another well-published case of Mildred Mapingure it was a broken system. Mildred was gang raped during a robbery. After discovering she was pregnant, she went to hospital to seek emergency contraception but was referred back to the police because the doctor could not give her the medication without the police knowing.

This went on until 72 hours passed. Months later after being pushed around between police, judges and hospitals she was finally granted the order to terminate but the hospital declined to terminate stating that it was no longer safe.

These are only but two cases in a long-standing tradition or a system that denies women reproductive rights.

The question becomes what needs to happen. First and foremost, the government especially the Health ministry needs to be held accountable for making sure that the provisions of the Constitution are observed.

Contrary to popular belief, abortion is not illegal in Zimbabwe but is restricted. It is the State’s responsibility to make sure that those that meet the criteria are able to access without barriers.

It is also the duty of government to train government health workers, police and judicial officers on what the law states.

A study led by the Guttmacher Institute recommended that to reduce unsafe abortions and abortion-related mortality, the government needed to improve healthcare workers’ knowledge on abortion.

Unsafe abortions are a reality in Zimbabwe. In 2016 it was estimated that 66 847 had induced abortion. What if many of these were women who under the law deserve to have an abortion?

If the law is a upheld and access improved, thousands of lives could be saved. Thousands of girls like Marita could not be forced to be single, unemployed, homeless mothers at 11.
Women like Mildred would not be forced to carry pregnancies that are a result of gang rape.

You might be asking yourself what this has to do with you? My answer is everything. Our people are dying unnecessarily from something they should have access to.

The already crippled health system is having to provide post-abortion care at a higher cost than providing lawful abortions at a fraction of the cost. It is my and your duty to ask our government why this is so. Why are we letting women die?

We should not be quiet anymore. We need to ask our government, our Members of Parliament, why? We start today. In our engagements with our public representatives, let us ask why?

 Malvern Tatenda Chiweshe is a Zimbabwean sexual and reproductive justice researcher and advocate based in Washington DC, United States

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