Should Namibia legalise abortion or not?

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Selma Ikela and
Alvine Kapitako

Windhoek-Faced with the burden of raising two children, unemployed *Madonna Simon thought it was best to terminate her third pregnancy as she was struggling and could not afford to feed an extra mouth.

“I will not lie to you that I use condoms all the time. I sat with myself afterwards and pondered how I would cope with an extra mouth to feed while already struggling to cope,” reminisced Simon who was 26 years at the time.

When she broke the news of her pregnancy to her partner who lives in Angola and her decision to have an abortion, he agreed with her.
“He gave me money to go ahead with the abortion,” said Simon who is now 29 years of age.

Simon and her partner eventually agreed she should have the abortion done in South Africa, where it is legal. She faked a study permit in order to go through with the abortion.

“There are posters everywhere of traditional healers and where to have an abortion,” explained Simon. She paid N$1 800 for the abortion to be performed by a private doctor.

Two years later, Simon feels she lost something. But she has coping mechanisms. “For months my conscience convicted me … you know, I would start crying out of the blue for losing that thing.”

“I just pray and ask for forgiveness,” said an emotional Simon, explaining that it is especially difficult when she and her partner meet because “we feel we have lost something.”

Ironically, the high school dropout who has struggled to find a decent job started selling abortion pills last year.

She explained she does this in order to survive, as she cannot solely depend on the assistance she gets from the two men who fathered her children.

“When I was broke I used to ask my friend for money. I later discovered that he sells abortion pills and he would encourage me to get him customers for a cut,” she explained. She later ventured into the business of selling abortion pills as she saw the need.

“Young girls come to you crying that they were manipulated by a man or thought that they were in love only to find out that the partner lost interest upon hearing that they are pregnant,” explained Simon. Married men also approach Simon for her services.

“Some of my customers are married men or men in serious relationships but were cheated, so they buy pills for their girlfriends to terminate the pregnancy to save the marriage,” explained Simon.

Sometimes she also get minors as young as 15 years old because they bleed a lot.
“My friend who also sells pills advised me not to sell the pills to minors as this could land me in trouble,” added Simon. Women who are four months pregnant or even further advanced also approach Simon for her services.

“But I do not sell to women with advanced pregnancies,” she insisted. Abortion and infanticide (baby dumping) are linked, Simon added.

“There are people who wait for the child to be born and they put it in a plastic and throw it away,” said Simon. “But most of my clients are teenagers.”

Most of her clients induce their abortions during weekends, said Simon. “This is maybe because they want to bleed while they are at home because there is no work.”
Simon sells two types of abortion pills. “I source my pills from the pharmacy. You will get them if you know someone back door.”

She also buys abortion pills from a supplier in India. “These are fast and strong,” she added.

The prices depend on who she sells the pills to. For teenagers and students one pill costs N$250 and three are needed to induce an abortion. For women who work she charges N$300.

New Era phoned a Windhoek pharmacy pretending to be a client that is interested in buying the pills known to induce abortion. One pill costs N$11, New Era learnt. “You need a prescription. It is used according to a doctor’s prescription,” said a female pharmacist.

The medication may also be used in hospital to assist with childbirth only at the time of delivery, for example cervical ripening (induction of labour) and for the treatment of severe bleeding after delivery. The medication is also used to prevent stomach ulcers.
“I tell them that it’s painful, you’re going to bleed, you must be indoors and in a warm place and I advise them to have a bucket because at some point they will discharge clots,” she added.

She also advises her clients to take painkillers because it’s painful.

“I also advise them to see a doctor, preferably a private doctor to tell them that it’s a miscarriage,” she added.

The Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr Bernard Haufiku, announced this week that last year 7 335 women were admitted to state facilities around the country for abortions. “This is a major concern as unsafe abortions pose a major risk to women’s physical and mental health,” said Haufiku.

“Those are the scared ones that run to hospital,” Simon responded to the 7 335 abortions recorded last year.

Symptoms of abortion that are not medically induced include heavy bleeding and infection of the womb, Dr Shonag Mackenzy, the head of department for obstetrics and gynaecology for Katutura and Windhoek Central hospitals, said this week.

New Era learnt desperate women insert sticks into their vaginas, and they drink mixed concoctions sometimes made from newspapers and soap.

Legalising abortion
Haufiku this week called for a wider debate in the most non-biased manner for a regulation to be passed.

The Abortion and Sterilisation Bill was first issued for public consultation in 1996 by Namibia’s first minister of health Dr Nickey Iyambo.

The Bill sought to replace the Apartheid South African Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, and sought to extend the legality of abortion to instances where the procedure can be requested on demand within a specified time frame.

However, the Abortion and Sterilisation Bill was ultimately withdrawn by Iyambo’s successor, Dr Libertina Amathila, in 1999 in the face of what was at the time seen as widespread public unhappiness over the government’s intention to legalise abortion.
At the time of its tabling and until it was withdrawn the Bill enjoyed the support of Namibia’s respective health ministers for two main reasons.

In the first instance the Bill was seen as a solution to the baby dumping issue, which was already a common phenomenon at the time. Secondly, the Bill sought to provide a safer alternative to illegal abortions carried out with often serious health consequences.
The Bill was also supported by Sister Namibia, a local civil society organisation that advocates feminist and women’s rights.

Haufiku said that in a country where contraceptives are widely available many women risk their lives by resorting to unsafe abortions.

“We need to ask ourselves whether it is not time to relook the legislation and decriminalize abortion. The facts speak for themselves,” said Haufiku, adding “it’s going to be hot but I want it to be debated and in the end we have to make a decision. It can’t go on as it’s going on.”

Gender equality practitioner Ngamane Karuaihe-Upi is of the view that legalizing abortion should be considered in order to give women the global right to decide whether they want to have a baby or not.

He also feels abortion should be a last resort as all safety measures should be explored. Men and women should be empowered on the consequences of having unsafe sex, he adds.

“If female politicians are too shy to talk about sanitary pads do you see them openly debating abortion and what women go through to get an abortion?” he said.

In October last year, female parliamentarians shied away from freely debating the provision of sanitary pads to needy schoolgirls, after DTA president McHenry Venaani tabled a motion that it is important – “to remind those who consider the issue taboo that all matters that require developmental intervention are the issues of MPS”.

Karuaihe-Upi said sex remains a taboo. Also, many women are not free to make choices regarding abortions or even negotiating for safer sex.

Despite contraceptives and information on practising safe sex being widely available, particularly at health facilities across the country, many do not practise safe sex, admitted Karuaihe-Upi.

“The current norms and belief systems are still oppressive towards women. Sex is still very much a taboo in Namibia … It is still a taboo for a woman to discuss sex openly with her partner,” he said.

*Pseudonym used to protect woman’s identity.

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