As International Safe Abortion Day Draws Closer, Its Time To Reflect on progress towards access to safe abortion for women and girls

The 28th of September is International Safe Abortion Day, and it has two themes: “Diverse Actions, Different Places, One Demand: Access to Safe and Legal Abortion Now” and “Abortion in Uncertain Times.”

By Edinah Masiyiwa

These themes speak to me as an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and they give me energy to continue working on safe abortion access. They communicate that firstly, we will achieve access to safe abortion through working in our different spaces from research, to advocacy, to awareness raising at community and policy level, to service providers. As a country we have even set up a coordinating structure for non-governmental organisations working on abortion meet to discuss their work on abortion with an aim to ensure women and girls in need of abortion access the service.

Finally, what really inspires me within these themes is the fact that we have one demand, which is …to have access to safe and legal abortion. This is what I dream for the women and girls of Zimbabwe.

However, Zimbabwe continues to face challenges as we try to push the abortion agenda, an agenda which could save many women’s lives.  The Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 continues to hamper access to legal safe abortion for women and girls in Zimbabwe. The World Health Organisation estimates that in developing regions there are 220 deaths per 100 000 unsafe abortions. Zimbabwe recorded more than 66,000 induced abortions most of which were unsafe in 2016.  Despite the restrictions on the Termination of Pregnancy Act, unsafe abortions are still thriving.

Evidence has shown that even among those who are eligible to access safe legal abortions, some are not doing so because of lack of information on the law. Even some of the health workers who are supposed to provide abortion services are also not aware of the law. This evidence shows that there is still more that needs to be done in terms of awareness raising.

The legal framework also has gaps that were identified through research done by my organisation Women’s Action Group in 2021. The gaps include a lack of guidelines on what each service provider is supposed to do when they come in contact with someone who has been raped, for example. There are no time frames on how long each service provider should take as they attend to survivors of rape and incest. Another gap identified is that there is no obligation on the Investigation Officer to advise a survivor of rape or incest that she can apply to a magistrate for a certificate authorizing termination of pregnancy.

The 2nd theme of “Abortion in Uncertain times” also speaks to the present situation where at times women fail to gain access due to reasons related to issues like COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic shook health systems to the core, adding further to the complexity of this topic of abortion. Imposed national lockdowns and movement restrictions affected access to timely abortion for millions of women across the globe.

Natural disasters such as cyclones also pre-dispose women to sexual abuse and this also affects their access to safe abortion. For instance, when Cyclone Idai hit Zimbabwe there were cases of men who raped women and girls. There however has been no clear follow up on these cases as the perpetrators could not be identified. There is evidence that some might have fallen pregnant and were not able to access termination services.

The Roe v. Wade judgement in the United States has also brought uncertainty on abortion. The gains that have been made in our country around abortion advocacy could be derailed by this judgement.  Zimbabwe is also going to have elections in 2023 and the members of parliament who had become champions are also not convinced to continue conversations on abortions for fear of losing votes during elections next year.

It is therefore important for those working on promoting access to safe abortion in Zimbabwe to come together as we commemorate the International Safe Abortion Day to develop a clear agenda that will ensure women and girls’ access safe abortion. Firstly, we need to raise awareness about the Termination of Pregnancy Act and ensure all survivors of sexual violence report to the police. Secondly, we need to ensure there are standard operating procedures for service providers who are in the continuum of care for sexual violence survivors. Thirdly, the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 has lived its life and needs to be changed. There is need for a law that responds to the current environment in Zimbabwe.

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