By Edinah Masiyiwa
As we commemorate both the International Safe Abortion Day on the 28th September and World Contraception Day on the 26th of September, we should be sure to focus on the problem of early unintended pregnancies among girls ages 10 to 14 years. A few weeks ago, news of these early pregnancies was featured in different media of Zimbabwe thanks to a new survey conducted on the topic which revealed that the adolescent 10 to 19 years pregnancy rate is at 23%..
A United Nations Populations Fund report in 2016 noted the increase of adolescent pregnancies from 99 live births per 1000 girls to 115 live births per 1000 girls. The same report highlighted that early sexual debut and sexual abuse of females increased the girls’ risk of unintended pregnancies and 54% of girls aged 10 – 14 years who had ever had sex experienced rape or forced sex on their first sexual encounter.
On the global arena, the neglected crisis of unintended pregnancy was the subject of UNFPA’s flagship 2022 State of World Population report. The report examined how such pregnancies represent a global failure to uphold basic human rights. The report states that more than three in five unintended pregnancies end in abortion. An estimated 45 percent of all abortions are unsafe, carried out in countries where the procedure is illegal, restricted, or unaffordable in safe settings. Unsafe abortion hospitalizes around 7 million women a year globally and is a leading cause of maternal death.
Zimbabwe has gone through an election process and the President was inaugurated on the 4th of September 2023. The period leading to the elections saw a number of organisations and even the parliament disengaging in the development agenda as focus was on whether or not the parliamentarians would secure a place in the next parliament. The Parliament of Zimbabwe was dissolved on the 22nd of August in line with the provisions of the constitution.
It is disturbing how politics can derail the whole development agenda. Organisation working on reproductive justice had gathered momentum on the abortion issue, as was noted by the Health Times when they reported that Parliament was warming up to the issue of abortion. The previous members of Parliament had capacity building sessions on access to safe abortion including the termination of pregnancy. Actually, we had parliamentary champions on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) who had been trained on SRHR including abortion. These members of Parliament were ready to raise a motion on the review of the current Termination of Pregnancy Act.
These two days we are commemorating provide an opportunity for us to relaunch the advocacy campaign for access to safe abortion and contraceptives, particularly for the adolescent girls. The connection between the two days provides a great opportunity for advocacy.
In a statement, the late former UNFPA Executive Director said in 1994, “Healthy families are created by choice, not by chance.”
Almost thirty years later, the same is still true. The country needs healthy families and it’s time we talk about choice to have a child or not as we fight for reproductive justice. The time to push the contraception and access to safe abortion is now, when we have a new parliament.
With the problem of unsafe abortions still a major contributory factor to maternal mortality in Zimbabwe, there is need to put back the issue of teenage pregnancy as well as the Termination of Pregnancy Act on the agenda of the new parliament. The policy framework should allow sexually active adolescents to access contraceptives in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Adolescent girls who have unwanted pregnancies, should be allowed to terminate if they choose to do so. Unwanted pregnancies affect the health of individuals as well as families. The Parliament is mandated to make or enact laws that protect and uphold women and girls’ rights and the termination of Pregnancy Act (1977) is one law that needs to be reviewed as it no longer serves women and girls of this day. Forty-six years later, women’s bodies are being regulated by this law. The concept of bodily autonomy is being violated.
I am also calling on health service providers to give adolescents free contraceptives if they ask. Health workers should not stigmatise these girls as this might be a barrier to accessing care. Our society as a whole should also be aware of the changes that are there which are evident in young girls having such an early sexual debut.