As Rwanda frees women arrested on abortion charges, questions come on abortion rights in Africa

Nii Ntreh May 21, 2020 at 12:00pm

May 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

May 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Anti-abortion campaigns in Africa have stemmed mostly from Christian churches across the continent. Photo Credit: The Guardian

The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has pardoned some 50 women who were arrested and prosecuted for the offenses of either having an abortion or assisting in the process.

This follows another 52 who were released last year for the same crime. The country’s Justice Minister, Johnston Busingye, said the most recent release consists of the last batch of women prosecuted for the termination of pregnancies.

In 2018, Rwanda relaxed its laws on abortion where previously, anyone who terminated a baby or assisted could be imprisoned for years.

Under the new law, abortions are permitted in the cases of rape, incest, forced marriages or when medical practitioners confirm that a pregnancy poses a risk to the health of the woman.

But what seems like progress still carries question marks for Sylvie Nsanga, one of Rwanda’s most prominent campaigner on behalf of women’s rights.

Nsanga, in an interview with the Associated Press, expressed worries about the 2018 legislation’s insistence that young women need to have their parent or guardian’s permission. She also has doubts about the availability of doctors, whose permissions are also needed, in rural areas.

Nsanga was quoted as saying, “It means girls will continue to get pregnant, abort, be imprisoned and then get pardoned by the president. There should be more conversation about the penal code that prohibits health professionals such as midwives from providing abortions.”

But Rwanda’s formerly harsh conception of abortion pales in comparison with the laws in a few other countries on the continent. According to the reproductive health research organization Guttmacher Institute, “abortion is not permitted for any reason in 10 out of 54 African countries.”

Most of the other countries still criminalize abortion even though every country in the African Union (AU) is a signatory to the 2003 Maputo Protocol, a pledge to ensure safe and sound improvements to women’s healthcare.

Among the countries with the most restrictive laws on abortion is Morocco where last October, Hajar Raissouni, a journalist, made headlines worldwide after she was arrested and jailed for having pre-marital sex and abortion.

She was eventually released but not before the pressure came from within and outside the country. Indeed, Raissouni denied that she ever had an abortion, saying she had only gone to see the specialist, seeking treatment for a blood clot. 

The general category of women’s reproductive health is known to be a testy issue in much of North Africa. Last year, the head of a Tunisia women’s association, Hedia Belhadj, told Le Monde that “80 percent of women of childbearing age [who] live in countries where there is restrictive abortion laws” are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.”

But Tunisia stands apart in that regard. Guttmacher says the country, along with Zambia, Cape Verde, and South Africa, have “relatively liberal abortion laws”.

In the last decade, Africa held the unenviable record as the region with the highest number of abortion-related deaths. In 2014, Guttmacher says at least 9% of maternal deaths (or 16,000 deaths) in Africa were from unsafe abortion.

The attitude towards abortion across the continent is still one of contempt even among the urban educated. This negativity stems from, among other things, conservative religious and cultural views.

Urbanization in Africa has panned out quite uniquely in such a way that western values regarding family has not been etched into the burgeoning middle-class.

According to a World Economic Forum report from 2019, Africa will be home to the world’s 10 largest Christian-majority countries by 2060. The continent may even be the biggest Christian bloc much earlier before then.

As such, there has been no real pressure on lawmakers to take second looks at existing legislation even in the broader context of the reproductive health of Africa’s women. And since there are no laws, the push for infrastructure for women’s health has been almost non-existent.

Even where there are laws that seem to support abortion under a wide range of circumstances, most governments do not feel the need to invest in women’s healthcare. This means in such countries, access to safe abortions is very much an issue of who has the means.

Try Ghana, where the law allows a termination under circumstances of rape, incest, fetal abnormality or disease, or “defilement of a female idiot,” or if they have to be performed to protect the physical or mental health of the woman.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, Lydia M., a 27-year-old Ghanaian white-collar working woman tells Face2Face Africa that when she found out she was pregnant in 2019, she simply “went to [name of private institution withheld for editorial reasons], told them I do not feel the need for a baby and they told me it’s my body and my right.”

Lydia had a safe termination and she believes it was because she had the right information about reproductive health and the means to visit a private institution where the procedure cost her almost $200, a steep amount for most Ghanaian women.

Asked if there were cheaper and equally safe ways to have had her termination, Lydia said public hospitals are usually more affordable.

“But a government hospital would ask too many questions and probably reject you too,” Lydia added.

One of the reasons Lydia would have been rejected at a public hospital in Accra, apart from the fact she did not qualify for an abortion under the legal codes in Ghana, is the stigmatization attached to abortion even by healthcare workers. On the continent, abortion, unlike contraception, attracts the emotive politics one can liken to debate on the same issue in the United States.

But campaigner Nsanga is right and not just about what will happen in Rwanda. Tens of thousands of African women will look for ways to terminate pregnancies they are either not ready or healthy for.

The longer it takes to argue out the philosophical questions, the more women are deprived of the appropriate care. A potentially disastrous slippery slope.

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