When Kuipa (14) from Tafara fell pregnant recently, her mother visited a popular traditional healer in the high density suburb and secretly arranged for an abortion, risking the life of her daughter as well as a five year jail term.
By Lazarus Sauti
“The Bible says don’t kill, but I think termination was the only wise option. Honestly, my daughter was not ready to be a mother. Sadly, she died,” said Mai Kuipa, who declined to give her real name.
Pregnant teenagers like Kuipa, who are not ready to be mothers, account for almost one in three of the country’s abortion-related maternal death as they opt for termination.
“Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate stands at 443 deaths per 100 000 live births,” said the Ministry of Health and Child Care, adding that illegal abortions are contributing about 16 percent of maternal deaths in the country.
Furthermore, a cross sectional study in the BMJ Open Access Journal (2018), approximates that maternal mortality attributable to abortion impediments in Zimbabwe range from six percent to 23 percent.
The study also noted that deaths and injuries due to unsafe abortion disproportionately affect women who are young, poor and lack education.
In Zimbabwe, abortion – an essential component of reproductive health care – is controlled as provided by Section 4 of the Termination of Pregnancy Act [15:10].
It is allowed only on therapeutic (if a woman’s life is in danger), eugenic (if there is a risk that the child will be ‘seriously handicapped’) or humanitarian (if the pregnancy was the result of rape or unlawful intercourse as defined by the law) grounds.
Termination takes place only at a designated hospital, with the written permission of the hospital superintendent.
In cases of suspected birth defects or life and death situations, the authority of two medical practitioners is also required.
For rape, a certificate by a magistrate is needed and is issued after consideration of a police report as well as an interview with the victim.
Section 60(1) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act [Chapter 9:23] also criminalizes abortion, as it provides that “any person who intentionally terminates a pregnancy… shall be guilty of unlawful termination of pregnancy”.
Moreover, Section 48(3) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that “an Act of Parliament must protect the lives of unborn children and that Act must provide that pregnancy may be terminated only in accordance with that law”.
The law that is operational in Zimbabwe is the Termination of Pregnancy Act [15:10].
In the study titled, “An Analytical Analysis of Abortion Laws in Zimbabwe from a Human Rights Perspective”, researcher Petronellah Chin’ombe noted that the Termination of Pregnancy Act [15:10], the Criminal Law (Codification & Reform) Act [Chapter 9:23] and Section 48(3) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe interfere with the right of autonomy and women are not able to exercise the right without interference from the State.
This interference has forced women and girls to undergo unsafe termination, and according to Marie Stopes International – an international non-government organisation providing contraception and safe abortion services in 37 countries around the world, more than 70 000 women, mostly teenagers like Kuipa, in Zimbabwe undergo unsafe termination each year, risking death from blood loss, shock and infection.
Human rights defender, Simbarashe Namusi, says unsafe abortion is one of Zimbabwe’s biggest threats to women’s health and to save the lives of women, it is important to bring the issue of undercover abortion out of darkness.
“To save women’s lives,” he declared, “we need to just bring abortion out of the darkness.”
Sharing the same sentiments, development practitioner, Fortune Sakupwanya, adds that the solution is safety, not restrictive laws.
“Policy makers should, thus, focus on reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies,” he advised.
As for sexual and reproductive health and rights expert, Doreen Shuvai Makamure, the panacea is simply ensuring that women and girls have access to, as well as information about effective contraceptive methods.
A study by the Guttmacher Institute – a research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally – confirms that increasing the availability of family planning in Zimbabwe and other African countries so that women who want to delay pregnancy have access to effective contraception, would reduce the number of unsafe abortions from 5.2 million to 1.2 million.
Media practitioner, Best Mukundi Masinire, believes attaining these reductions require considerable financial investments from the government.
He also urged policy makers and ministries like Health and Child Care, as well as Education to start talking about abortion and its implications for maternal mortality.
“People must openly talk about abortion in schools, clinics, churches, kombis and streets,” Masinire said, adding that traditional and religious leaders should be engaged on the issue since they have direct channels to the people in their communities.
Gender expert, Lucy Gamuchirai Chipangura, warns the government to stop policing women’s bodies.
“No woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy against her will,” she said, adding that the government should recognise women’s reproductive right to safe and legal abortion based on the human rights to dignity and equality.
Makamure strongly believes a paradigm shift is also needed in the regulation of abortion from the model of crime and punishment to a more reproductive health model which offers women with an exclusive right of autonomy regarding their bodies.
She added that there is need for a road-map on making safe and legal abortion part of the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health service provision in line with Article 14 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which provides for the rights to control one’s fertility and the right to decide whether to have children and the number and spacing of the children.