Child protection and access to safe abortion

By Memory Pamella Kadau

In the past few weeks, two unrelated developments have captured media attention and triggered thoughts about safe abortion and child protection. The first development was the lawsuit filed by Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), challenging the validity of some sections of the Termination of Pregnancy (ToP) Act. The second case was the raid and arrest of a cult which operated on a farm in Nyabira, some 30 kilometres west of Harare. Some 251 minors stayed at the farm where they were denied access to birth certificates, subjected to forced labour and girls were sexually abused and forced into child marriages.

I bring these two issues up to show that conversation about abortion law reform and access to safe abortion for victims of sexual abuse is very important.  Advocating for access to safe abortion is crucial in protecting child rights, especially for children who have been abused and are victims of child marriages, as we have witnessed in the recent Madzibaba Ishmael cult case. In this article, I am discussing that accessible and safe abortion is an essential component of child protection.

Duty of care and best interests of the child

Before exploring how safe abortion intersects with child protection, it’s crucial to understand the legal framework emphasising the duty of care and the best interests of the child. Enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe (2013), Sections 19 and 81 comprehensively delineate children’s rights. Notably, the Constitution defines children as individuals below 18 years old, establishing this as the age of sexual consent. Additionally, Section 81 designates the High Court as the upper guardian, endowing it with the responsibility of safeguarding children’s welfare through appropriate measures. This legal foundation underscores the importance of prioritising children’s well-being and protection within the Zimbabwean context.

Protection from further trauma

For children who have been victims of sexual abuse or child marriages, pregnancy resulting from such incidents can compound their trauma and suffering. Access to safe abortion provides these children with the option to terminate unwanted pregnancies, sparing them from the additional physical, emotional, and psychological burdens of carrying a child conceived through violence or coercion. The media has reported cases where girls have been raped and impregnated. For example, in 2015, a Lupane girl was raped by her 28-year-old brother, and she carried the pregnancy to maturation. Subsequently, she suffered because of this heinous act in unmeasurable.

Prevention of health complications

Pregnancy during childhood poses significant health risks to young girls, whose bodies may not be fully developed to support a safe and healthy pregnancy. Complications during childbirth are higher among adolescents, including risks of maternal mortality, obstructed labour, and obstetric fistula. Safe abortion offers a way to prevent these health complications and safeguard the well-being of the child. The media has also reported several cases where teenagers give birth and suffer terrible consequences, including tragic loss of life. The case of 14-year-old Memory Machaya of Marange, Manicaland province, who died giving birth at an apostolic shrine in August 2021, is one of the most famous in Zimbabwe.

Protection of reproductive autonomy

Child victims of sexual abuse or child marriages often have their reproductive autonomy violated through forced pregnancies. Access to safe abortion empowers these children to make decisions about their own bodies and futures, ensuring that they have control over whether to continue a pregnancy resulting from non-consensual or coerced sexual activity. Majority of victims of child marriages are denied access to safe abortion when they escape from their rapists. This takes away their body autonomy and, in the majority of cases, forces them to engage in unsafe abortion, which can have dire health consequences.

Prevention of inter-generational cycle of abuse

Allowing child victims of abuse or child marriages to access safe abortion breaks the cycle of abuse and prevents the perpetuation of inter-generational cycles of trauma. By providing these children with the means to avoid early and unintended motherhood, society can help disrupt the continuation of harmful patterns of abuse and exploitation. Children brought up by victims of child marriages and rape are also vulnerable to being permanently entrapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and abuse like their mothers.

Promotion of child rights

Every child has the right to health, education, and protection from harm, as enshrined in international human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition, sections 19 and 81 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantee further rights which are enforceable by a court of law. Access to safe abortion aligns with these rights by ensuring that children who have experienced abuse or exploitation are not further subjected to violations of their fundamental rights to health, dignity, and self-determination.

In conclusion, advocating for access to safe abortion for child victims of abuse and child marriages is a matter of upholding their rights to health, autonomy, and protection from harm. By recognising and respecting these rights, society can provide vital support to vulnerable children, enabling them to recover from trauma, pursue their education, and regain control over their own lives.

 

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