Op-ed: Africa: Care and compassion over colonialism: Namibia must protect women and girls seeking abortions

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This past week, we have watched with great interest and hope as Namibia’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Gender Equality, Social Development and Family Affairs held its first four days of public hearings on whether to reform its Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975.

These historic hearings are the result of years of grassroots activism by Namibian youth and women’s rights groups. 

The pro-choice movement gained momentum in the second half of 2020, with protests organised throughout the country calling for an end to femicide and sexual and gender-based violence, and demanding the repeal of existing abortion laws inherited from the apartheid era. A petition launched by activist Beauty Boois to liberalise abortion laws in Namibia garnered 62,000 signatures, an unprecedented feat in a conservative society.

Over the past four days, health and rights advocates from the Voices for Choices & Rights Coalition, as well as medical doctors and representatives from the Ministry of Health, have made a case for the legalisation of abortion in Namibia — highlighting the catastrophic health and rights impacts of the current legislation. 

As it stands, the law only allows abortion under very restrictive conditions: in cases of incest, rape and in acute medical emergencies. Even then, the process of obtaining a legal abortion is so cumbersome that it is rendered practically impossible. As a result, young girls and women in Namibia who wish to terminate their pregnancies have little choice but to resort to unsafe abortions. 

Every year, an estimated 500 Namibian women die due to these unsafe abortions — this accounts for a staggering 12-16% of the country’s maternal deaths

In Namibia, as in the rest of the world, the criminalisation of abortion does not bring down abortion rates, nor does it address the root causes of unwanted pregnancies. It simply puts the poorest and most disadvantaged women at greater risk of economic and social hardship from unwanted pregnancies and exposes them to medical complications from unsafe abortion. As one activist said at the hearings: “Every pregnancy in Namibia should be a wanted pregnancy.”

These hearings in Namibia are an opportunity for grassroots civil society organisations (CSO) and activists to bring the country closer to truly respecting Namibian women’s health and reproductive rights. 

We can only hope and strive for the country to follow in the steps of  South Africa, Cape Verde, and, as of yesterday, Benin, three countries on the continent that have liberalised abortion laws. Of course, these laws are not a panacea for all the problems women face, but they are a crucial and necessary first step.

Beyond Namibia, health and rights activists throughout Africa have strived for decades to rescind many colonial-era inherited authoritarian legislation and advance the protection of the rights and freedoms of all, including vulnerable minorities such as LGBTQI. In the past decade, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana and Seychelles have decriminalised homosexuality. In 2006, South Africa became the first nation on the African continent to allow gay marriage.

In Namibia, as in the rest of the world, the criminalisation of abortion does not bring down abortion rates, nor does it address the root causes of unwanted pregnancies. (Photo: nationaladvocatesforpregnantwomen.org / Wikipedia)

Over the years, this progressive agenda has been challenged, and efforts are at play to claw back on many of these health and rights advances. In a concerning development, the Botswana Court of Appeal started hearing this month a government attempt to overturn the landmark 2019 high court decision to decriminalise homosexuality. This judgment, hailed as a major victory for LGBTQI rights in the conservative country, must not be overturned.

In Ghana, a Private Members Bill tabled in Parliament in August 2021 seeks to introduce some of the harshest anti-LGBTQI laws on the African continent. As it currently stands, this draft law aims to make it a crime punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, pansexual or non-binary. Advocating, sympathising or offering assistance such as financial or medical support to LGBTQI people or organisations would also be an offence punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

While we are encouraged by some of the policy and legislative steps taken at country and regional levels (for example the Maputo Protocol and Resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights) to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people, we have much work ahead of us in challenging the authoritarian and oppressive narrative pushed in large part by Christian fundamentalist groups from the United States.  

As women, as activists and as members of African-governed CSOs, we stand proud and determined and will continue to anchor our activism and advocacy in the principles of empathy, dignity, kindness, understanding and respect — principles that are central to many of our cultural and religious values.

We are endlessly inspired and encouraged by youth activists and the progressive movements taking shape throughout the continent, and stand with them in rejecting harmful social and gender norms and intolerance, stigmatisation and dehumanisation. 

We celebrate with them, people in all their diversity. We are pro-family in all its various forms, pro-women, pro-LGBTQI, pro-choice, pro-education. 

We believe in a progressive and forward-facing Africa, where people’s freedoms and rights, including their right to bodily integrity and autonomy, are celebrated and respected.

In these challenging and polarised times, we urge our governments and our legislatures to act with empathy and protect the fundamental and inalienable rights of all people — including minorities and historically vulnerable groups such as vulnerable pregnant women and LGBTQI persons. 

Our futures and that of our youth are at stake. DM/MC

Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry is the Regional Director at International Planned Parenthood Federation Africa Region (IPPF-AR). She has more than 30 years of international human rights and development experience and has previously worked for Amnesty International as Regional Director for West and Central Africa and worked for several UN agencies, including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Advocate Bience Gawanas has been a human rights lawyer and social development activist for more than 40 years and is an IPPF Board of Trustees member. Until 2020, she was Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa to the United Nations Secretary-General. Her former positions include African Union (AU) Commissioner for Social Affairs, Special Adviser to the Namibian Minister of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, Special Adviser to the Namibian Minister of Health and Social Services, and Ombudswoman Namibia.

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