Archaic abortion law nails poor

The fact that abortion is illegal does not stop women from having them and this puts the poor at the highest risk of injury and death, experts say.

16 April 2018 | Local News

Legal experts and women's advocates agree that Namibia's current abortion laws need urgent revision to help reduce the life-threatening risks posed to mostly poor women who are unable to access safe abortions and whose human rights are violated.

Further, that the current restrictive abortion law is more than likely in violation of women's human rights and the Namibian constitution.

“The law on abortion should be amended.

“The law currently is atrocious and a blatant violation of the autonomy of the body and future of women, which is an affront to the right to dignity,” human rights advocate and lawyer Norman Tjombe told Namibian Sun.

Dianne Hubbard of the Legal Assistance Centre's gender research and advocacy project explained that Namibia's abortion law was inherited from South Africa and “never democratically debated in Namibia”.

She emphasised, like many lawmakers and human rights advocates, that “laws restricting access to abortion do not discourage women from having abortions. They simply drive abortion underground, with tragic consequences for women's health and well-being.”

Eileen Rakow of the Office of the Ombudsman said that according to the World Health Organisation, 20 million out of the 42 million abortions performed each year, are illegal and unsafe.

“We are faced with a reality where it is usually the poor, rural or already marginalised women that are faced with the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy,” she said.

But, for women who have the means, unwanted pregnancies are “not that daunting”, because they can easily fly to South Africa or elsewhere and receive the help they need.

Hubbard agreed that in Namibia, as elsewhere, the restrictive abortion laws have a “disproportionate effect on poor women”.

Poor women have no option but to access dangerous backstreet abortions or home remedies, she said.



Punishing poor women

Rakow noted that denying a woman the right to make an independent decision of her body violates a number of human rights.

And, when women are forced to access risky and life-threatening illegal abortions, a multitude of human rights are violated.

Hubbard agreed that the current law is “possibly a violation of the right to dignity in the Namibian constitution”, a right that gives people some space to make important decisions that affect them personally, especially those that involve their own bodies and where it involves issues where reasonable people disagree about what is right and wrong.

Rakow, Hubbard, Tjombe and others agree that dialogue and action is urgently needed to address the current law.

“It is always a good time to discuss abortion in a frank and honest manner, to develop a law and social services that are responsive to the socio-economic conditions of the people of this country,” Tjombe said.

He underlined that apart from the risks of unsafe abortions, women in Namibia face “a serious and unmitigated disaster of gender-based violence and gender inequality”, which often force them into unwanted pregnancies.

Another chief concern according to Rakow, that the hush surrounding abortions, and family planning, prevents women who are considering illegal abortions, from making an informed decision.

Hubbard said although there seems to be a greater discussion on the topic now, Namibia “tends to shy away from open consideration of sensitive issues”.



Strengthen alternatives

A statement from Sister Namibia on the abortion debate, noted that it is not simply about legalising abortion, but the step should be interlinked with many other factors.

“It would be important to provide counselling centres for girls and women to understand the alternatives, the medical and biological implications of aborting.”

The organisation pointed out that even now, such services could help reduce the high rate of women dumping their new-borns.

“Just as baby dumping may happen less frequently if girls and women had safe alternatives, so too the abortion debate should discuss safe alternatives to abortion.”

Ultimately, Sister Namibia argues that rights should be exercised in a safe environment, hence the need for a thorough discussion on the matter.

Hubbard agreed that legalising abortion must go hand-in-hand with making other services available, or strengthening existing alternatives and services.

These include counselling for women considering to abort, and access to support services such as state maintenance grants and alternatives such as adoption and kinship care.

Other steps include strengthening family planning education at schools, more accessible family planning methods, affordable child care services, and more.

“Steps such as these are far more likely to reduce abortion and infanticide than a criminal sanction,” she noted.

JANA-MARI SMITH

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