Poor women hardest hit by abortion ban

30 September 2021 | Health

Windhoek • [email protected]

Despite strong evidence that restrictive abortion laws disproportionately harm impoverished Black women, pro-choice activists face an uphill battle to meet and discuss Namibia’s apartheid-era abortion law with parliamentarians.
“The restrictive abortion law is not class or racially neutral. It impacts most severely on poor and Black women who often lack the means to provide a dignified life for themselves and their children, due to structural injustices,” a 2021 desktop review of Namibia’s apartheid-era Abortion and Sterilisation Act 2 of 1975, states.
Women unable to afford the price of a legal abortion in South Africa are exposed to highly risky abortions, in addition to arrest and prosecution, the review notes, a major barrier to their right to health and dignity. And though the law technically permits abortions in cases of rape, incest and life threatening complications, the requirements to obtain permission are so complex and formidable, they are “almost impossible to meet”.
These concerns and strategies to reform the law formed part of a regional roundtable discussion hosted by Namibian non-profits, the Women’s Legal Centre and Voices for Choice and Rights Coalition (VCRC) last week.

Not stopping
While the organisations continue to work to educate and sensitise the public on sexual reproductive health rights and justice, the VCRC say parliamentarians have avoided attempts to meet and discuss the topic.
“They had initially sent out a notice of our petition that was submitted to be reviewed and presented in front of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. Since we followed up, however, every creative attempt to sensitise MPs or to procure our meeting has proven futile. This shows lack of urgency and clear abdication of responsibility from lawmakers,” intersectional gender justice advocate Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe explained.
A petition launched by the VCRC last year to legalise abortion in Namibia, has attracted more than 62 000 signatures to date. The petition prompted large public protests and the tabling of a motion to discuss the topic of abortion in parliament.
Nthengwe underlined this week that “criminalisation doesn't reduce abortions, it increases unsafe, clandestine abortions”.
She added that it is likely that due to Covid-19, dangerous backdoor abortions have skyrocketed, despite the “wasteland” of data available in Namibia.
“Namibia has been ranked as one of the highest unequal countries in the world. This means most poor, Black communities are severely affected by laws that continue to infringe on their human rights, and that control their fertility, and ultimately their freedom to choose and reproductive rights,” Nthengwe added.
She is calling on the gender, justice and health ministers to “re-focus efforts to amend the law to safeguard the lives of adolescent girls, young women and gender diverse persons”.

Ineffective and harmful
“Abortion rates are rising most in countries that restrict access to abortion,” a 2020 Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) fact sheet on abortion states. Moreover, “laws restricting access to abortion do not actually prevent abortion, but are more likely to affect the circumstances in which abortion takes place.”
The LAC underlined that “purely religious views cannot be imposed on the public by law in a secular state like Namibia”.
Further, that “although some of our staff members oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds, we believe that the decision is a matter of personal conscience which should not be mandated by the law in the absence of any scientific or human rights-based consensus on the issue”.

The Guttmacher Institute found that as of 2019, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest abortion case-fatality rate of any world region, at roughly 185 deaths per 100 000 abortions, for a total of 15 000 preventable deaths every year.
Sub-Saharan Africa was identified as having the highest rate of risky abortions globally.
“As of 2010–2014, 77% of abortions in the region are unsafe, compared with the global average of 45%. The resulting incidence of unsafe abortion—6.2 million per year—exacts a heavy toll on the region’s women and families.”
Over the past year the VCRC has hosted journalism training to responsibly report on sexual and reproductive rights and justice. Moreover, the organisation met with over 800 youth to discuss the topic, with financial support from International Planned Parenthood Federation.