By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha || Global Editor At Large | @ChiefKMasimba | November 09, 2011
Harare, Zimbabwe – The subject of abortion awakens a kaleidoscope of emotions in people and generates much controversy in the public health discourse, underlined with significant cultural and moral considerations. An estimated 46 million women throughout the world, 11% of whom are in Africa, have induced abortion each year. In Zimbabwe abortion is illegal, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or preservation of the mother’s health.
Women who are brought before the courts for abortion are charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. Most of them are sentenced to community service while in exceptional cases, based on the magistrate’s discretion, they can be jailed.
Abortion is associated with stigma and shame and carries connotations of sexual relationships outside of marriage.
“I see it in a spiritual light. Babies that are aborted never really die, and they can come back to haunt a woman especially if she does not repent,” said one man who refused to be named. “In Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:15-16, the Bible alludes that even before a child is formed in the mother’s womb, God is aware of that child and already has a plan for that child’s life.”
But Wadzanai Chiuri, who described herself a Christian, said rape should be enough justification to warrant pregnancy termination.
“As a Christian, I think it’s wrong to abort, but in instances where a woman is raped, she should abort because she will have no love for the baby,” she said.
Despite the stigma around abortion, backyard abortions are rife in Zimbabwe and put the lives of women at risk. Unicef estimates that 80 000 illegal abortions take place in the country every year.
The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare also estimates that approximately 273 abortions are performed daily in the country, most of them clandestinely.
According to Slyvia Chirawu, national coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, abortion in Zimbabwe is legal but limited.
She said it can be performed in terms of the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 if it constitutes a threat to the life of the mother, if there is a serious threat of permanent impairment of the mother’s physical health, if there is a serious risk that the child will be born with a physical or mental defect and where there is a possibility that a pregnancy resulted from unlawful intercourse such as incest or rape.
She added that marital rape is however an exception. The idea that a woman might voluntarily choose to end a pregnancy makes many people uncomfortable and, in some instances, provokes outright hostility.
Those opposed to abortion often fear legal abortion will negatively change community values or cultural norms and invoke divine punishment.
“It is a sensitive subject which has to be tackled in a sensitive manner. The fact of the matter is that women should have access to safe abortion and they should be able to go through counselling so they can make an informed choice about whether to abort or not to abort,” said Edinah Masiyiwa, executive director of Women’s Action Group.
While most people regard pregnancy as a desirable thing, the fact of the matter is that pregnancy is not always trouble-free. Young women in particular, left with little choice, face immense pressure to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Traditional and cultural norms in Zimbabwe highly stigmatise and discriminate against children born out of wedlock, further putting pressure on young women who fall pregnant before marriage to opt for abortion, either conducted by untrained persons or self-inflicted.
Abortions are usually conducted in unregulated and unsanitary conditions and with methods that can kill the mother or render them infertile for the rest of their lives. Arguments against abortion tend to focus on the foetus, often equating abortion to murder.
“Abortion is a crime because you’ll be killing an innocent soul. Besides, the use of condoms is a sign that shows that the world can live without unwanted pregnancies,” said Linda Tiriri.
“With rape, I think there should be immediate measures to avoid a pregnancy like taking a tablet just after the incident because I don’t think anyone is willing to take care of an unwanted baby,” she said.
It is also believed that a law that permits abortion can lead to reckless behaviour and increased incidence of abortion, but Chirawu thinks otherwise.
“Actually a restrictive abortion framework makes women seek unsafe abortions in unsafe places, for example, traditional healers, backyard abortionists or take concoctions that are unsafe to use,” she said, adding that there was need to examine why women opt for abortion.
According to Unicef’s Children and Women’s Rights in Zimbabwe, Theory and Practice, illegal, self-inflicted abortion methods are thought to include the consumption of detergents, strong tea, traditional herbs, alcohol mixes and malaria tablets. Other methods include the use of knitting needles, sharpened reeds and hangers.
Given the high rates of maternal mortality attributed to unsafe abortions in the country, there is need for treating abortion as an issue of health and welfare as opposed to one of crime and punishment in order to save women’s lives.
According to analysts, abortion laws traceable to colonial regimes in sub-Saharan Africa need to be reformed in order to safeguard the rights of women. The fact is that even though abortion is criminalised, young women affected by high levels of poverty and the social undesirability of children born out of wedlock, resort to abortion as a way to manage their lives and livelihoods.
However, removing women’s criminal liability for abortion is only but one part of the solution. There is need for widespread educational campaigns on sexual reproductive health as well as the contraceptive methods that are available to women.
“We’re educating women and young girls about their sexual reproductive health rights. We take it for granted that women know about these issues. We’re also looking at the law; the law does not really favour women, even the ones that have been abused,” said Masiyiwa.
Access to pregnancy control methods must be made as easy as possible for women who may face social condemnation for using contraceptives within their communities.