Illegal abortions remain a burning issue

20 February 2020 | Social Issues

At least 74 persons were arrested for illegal abortions over the past five years, with one woman currently behind bars on a conviction related to an illegal abortion.

The arrests and convictions have been slammed as a serious rights violation by human rights advocates who say many unwanted pregnancies are linked to the country's widespread poverty, violence and women's inequality. “The arrest of women due to illegal abortions is unconstitutional. There are so many intersectional issues that push women and girls to resort to abortion,” said Florence /Khaxas, a Namibian women's rights advocate. The

Namibian Correctional Service (NCS) moreover confirmed that last year a 35-year-old woman was imprisoned on an abortion-related offence in the south of Namibia.

The statistics provided by the

Namibian police and correctional services did not specify the circumstances around the offences and whether the women had helped someone else end a pregnancy or whether they were self-induced terminations. Legal expert Norman Tjombe said prison terms for women who tried to end unwanted pregnancies should be reviewed. Tjombe described the imprisonment for abortion as “atrocious in that we jail desperate women who make decisions about their bodies, but we are unable to provide effective alternatives to them.” He added that the arrests and detentions are taking place under a law “of which the constitutionality is questionable”.



On the margins

/Khaxas said mostly poor and marginalised women and girls are affected by current abortion laws.

At a workshop on early and unintended pregnancies in Namibia this month, traditional norms, low education levels, limited reproductive education and information, sexual and physical abuse and poverty were listed as prominent causes behind Namibia's close to 20% pregnancy rate among teenage girls.

It was further announced that at least 40% of pregnancies of girls aged 15 to 19 were a result of rape or statutory rape. Khaxas said arrests for illegal abortions “just make matters worse.

The social-economic inequalities women face impact the decisions they have to make. If we look at the decision-making powers of many women in Namibia within relationships, can they negotiate for sex? Is their consent respected?” Numerous studies have warned that a lack of access to emergency contraceptives and safe legal abortions are contributing to the rise of infants being abandoned after birth. Nampol deputy commissioner Kaunapawa Shikwambi confirmed recently that between 2013 and 2019, the police made 97 arrests for concealment of birth offences.



Tedious

Although Namibia's law makes provision for legal abortions under circumstances such as rape and health risks, many are unaware of these exceptions.

Moreover, rape is significantly underreported due to stigmatisation and other fears. A 2011 study, titled 'Information and Women's Testimonies about Abortion in Namibia', described a 2009 case in which a rape survivor who was infected with HIV and became pregnant was denied a legal termination after she was told she would be arrested.

Getting the green light for a legal abortion can be cumbersome.

Where the woman's health is at risk, two doctors have to certify the legal grounds for abortion, and in cases of mental health, a psychiatric report is required.

In cases of rape, a police report and permission from a magistrate is needed. Women found guilty of opting for an illegal abortion can be imprisoned for up to five years or pay a fine while abortion providers could be jailed for three months or be fined.



Danger

The 2011 study shed light on the risky methods employed to end unwanted pregnancies.

One woman told the researchers she was raped at 12 and was told it was her fault. When she was 15, she fell pregnant by a man who was married to another woman. The man left and never spoke to her again.

“When I was three months pregnant, I boiled a lot of newspapers in water together with Sir Edwards and Royale (liquors).” She drank the mixture and was engulfed by severe pains and bleeding for two weeks.

When she was taken to hospital, she was not examined and claims she was given only paracetamol.

Another woman said her friend, who was 16, died from blood loss after she paid N$300 for an illegal abortion. The procedure involved a metal clothes hanger that was sharpened at one point and was inserted to provoke the abortion.

“It was really sad, but this is not an isolated case as there are so many young girls facing the same predicament. In most cases it's not reported; this young lady's story was not reported either in the local media or on TV. Her secret died with her and her friends; even her parents did not know.”



Numbers

Dianne Hubbard of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) recently noted that while illegal abortion statistics are unavailable, they are “nonetheless a serious problem”.

The most recent reliable statistics are from a 2006 study which found that abortion accounted for 20.7% of obstetric complications reported at hospitals in Namibia.

The study also found that one in 12 maternal deaths between 2004 and 2005 were likely linked to dangerous, backstreet abortions.

“Since most abortions take place in the shadows, we may never know the actual extent of the problem in

Namibia,” Hubbard underlined.

JANA-MARI SMITH

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