MPs must talk about abortion

26 March 2019 | Government

National Council chairperson Margaret Mensah-Williams has urged Namibian politicians and lawmakers to defend the rights of all citizens, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

She also urged a review of the apartheid-era abortion law.

“As a lawmaker, I want to us to start talking about decriminalising abortion,” Mensah-Williams said yesterday, speaking at the opening of a round-table discussion on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Namibia, hosted by the Office of the Ombudsman in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat.

She added that although there had been previous calls for decriminalising abortion, zero progress had been made despite the life-threatening risks posed by medically unsupervised abortions, and the fact that experts have noted a link to Namibia's high number of infanticides.

In March 2017, then health minister Bernhard Haufiku revealed that more than 7 100 women had been treated at public health facilities in one year for complications arising from suspected illegal abortions.

The minister emphasised that the numbers were a red flag showing that the situation was “completely out of control” and said that the numbers reflected only the tip of the iceberg, as many did not seek medical help.

He called on Namibians to revive discussions on decriminalising abortion, to a mostly muted response.







One community



Mensah-Williams yesterday emphasised that while the LGBTI community was still a “no-go issue” for many, including most politicians, it was the responsibility of elected lawmakers to defend everyone's human rights.



“Irrespective of how uncomfortable it is, it is time that we should talk about the LGBTI community. They are part of our communities.”



She invited LGBTI representatives and human rights advocates to visit the National Council and other political platforms to educate policymakers on the issues faced by the community.



“Make politicians understand the issues. Let's talk about this and engage these communities. They are part of Namibian society.”



She said it was time for politicians to set aside their personal views on issues such as abortion and the LGBTI community in order to create laws that are relevant to all Namibians.







Deadly



Mensah-Williams described the Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975 as outdated and said it infringed upon the human rights of women and girls.



In particular, she said the law discriminated against “the poor and young who do not have the means to seek safe and legal abortions outside Namibia's borders.”



Mensah-Williams said some laws prevented a significant and vulnerable portion of Namibians from accessing sexual and reproductive health services.



She said despite the life-threatening risks posed by illegal abortions, the current attitude in Namibia remained in favour of the law.



“This raises broader questions about the status of women and girls in our society and whether women's lives matter.”



She pledged her support to the Law Reform and Development Commission in reviewing the 1975 abortion law, adding that “we need to act now.”



She called on government agencies to work together to ensure that appropriate and comprehensive sex education is introduced in schools.







Individual rights



The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 20 million of the 42 million abortions performed every year are illegal and unsafe, and that it is mostly young, rural and low-income women who bear the brunt of the risks.



In 2017, speaking at the Women's Day celebration hosted by the University of Namibia, Eileen Rakow of the ombudsman's office said the denial of a pregnant woman's right to make an independent decision regarding abortion violated a wide range of human rights.



In 2018, lawyer Norman Tjombe described the current abortion law as “atrocious and a blatant violation of the autonomy of the body and future of women, which is an affront to the right to dignity.”



He said Namibia lacked effective and accessible family-planning services, which contributed to the high number of unwanted pregnancies.



He agreed that a frank discussion on abortion was needed in Namibia in order to provide social services that reflected and responded to the country's socio-economic conditions.



Dianne Hubbard of the Legal Assistance Centre told Namibian Sun last year that laws restricting access to legal abortion do not prevent women from having abortions.



“They simply drive abortion underground, with tragic consequences for women's health and wellbeing.”



She stressed that making abortion illegal was not an effective way to discourage abortions.



There were a number of positive measures to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to support pregnant women, including better family-planning education in schools, accessible family-planning methods, and counselling for pregnant women, she said.



“Such steps are far more likely to reduce abortion and infanticide than a criminal sanction.”

JANA-MARI SMITH