A sexual and reproductive rights lawyer has urged SADC-PF parliamentarians who met in Johannesburg to scrap highly restrictive and ambiguous laws that prevent women and girls from legally terminating unintended pregnancies.
Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo, a sexual and reproductive rights lawyer with the Southern African Litigation Centre, made this proposal last week when she addressed the joint session of SADC-PF regional committees for capacity strengthening on criminalisation and stigmatisation: disincentives to the realisation of fundamental human rights and public health, held in Johannesburg.
It was noted during the joint session that girls as young as nine years old, some of them physically disabled and living in rural areas, were burdened with the load of unintended pregnancy after they were raped by older men. These girls were in this dilemma because it emerged the existing laws do not allow them to terminate the pregnancies in a legal way, which is usually the safest way.
She implored parliamentarians to use evidence-based arguments in parliament and at constituency level so that clear and unambiguous laws on pregnancy termination are propagated that could benefit women in such a dilemma.
Chingore-Munazvo said SADC-PF parliaments should remove termination of unintended pregnancies from the penal code and scrap “limitations on facilities designated from legal abortion services, and legal abortion services should be offered at all state hospitals, as well as a network of clinics”, especially in the early phases of these unintended pregnancies.
During 2010 to 2014 an estimated 8,3 million abortions occurred each year in Africa with an estimated 1,6 million women being treated due to complications from abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
In South Africa any woman of any age can get an abortion by simply requesting it, with no reasons given, if she is less than 13 weeks pregnant. If she is between 13 and 20 weeks pregnant, she can get the abortion if her own physical or mental health is at stake or if she is pregnant because of incest or rape.
South Africa has witnessed a decrease in deaths from backstreet abortions but the number of deaths from abortions remains quite high with Gauteng recording five percent of maternal deaths attributed to abortion, of which 57 percent were from illegal abortions.
In Namibia abortion is restricted under the Abortion and Sterilization Act of 1975, which Namibia inherited from South Africa. In 2005 Zimbabwe had 70 000 illegal abortions resulting in 20 000 maternal deaths.
Chingore-Munazvo feels parliamentarians should also track the health budget for the cost of post-abortion care and that they should increase public awareness on current laws on the termination of pregnancy, and that there is a need for multiple sign-offs where such termination is sought legally.
State parties, she says, should ensure that laws, policies and administrative procedures aimed at ensuring women’s access to family planning/contraception and safe abortion services, in the cases provided for in existing health protocols, are respected and implemented.
“State parties should particularly ensure that health services and health care providers do not deny women access to contraception/family planning and safe abortion information services because of, for example, requirements of third parties for reasons of conscientious objection,” she told parliamentarians.
She says because of ambiguity in some of the existing laws victims of rape have to be treated as defendants, who have to be acquitted in court before they can be permitted to have an abortion as they have to meet certain forensic and judicial standards to prove they were indeed raped by men.
These restrictions drive many women to resort to clandestine, unsafe abortions to induce self-pregnancy termination that often put the lives of these women at risk.
Agnes Limbo of the RDP who was among the Namibian parliamentarians delegated to attend the SADC-PF sessions in Johannesburg, spoke about the Maputo Protocol that defines abortion as a human right and also demands the total legalisation of abortion in tune with numerous international treaties and statutes on human rights.
“I hear there is the Maputo Protocol but how many of us in rural areas know about this? Because of this lack of information we see many of these poor kids in rural areas, some of them disabled, having bigger tummies (pregnant) and they don’t even know who the father is. We need to go out in our commities and sensitise our communities on what kind of services are available,” she stated.
Patricia Kainga Nangozo, a Malawian parliamentarian, concurred with Chongore-Munazvo, saying: “I think abortion should not be criminalised especially in a case of a young woman who has been raped, and she has to bear the costs of her unwanted pregnancy. And how do you stop someone from raping you? It’s the women that are affected and they are obliged to make the right decisions.”