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The abortion debate

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When I was a little girl of just four, I remember the family maid calling me to the spare bedroom to play a game with her. The game, she explained, would entail her lying down on the spring base single bed  and me jumping over her stomach.

Initially, I had concerns that such a game would cause her pain. But, in the way that only four-year olds can be convinced, she reassured me that the game would not hurt her at all and that it would instead be a good workout for her belly.

Somewhere in my mind, I can still hear the sound of those springs squealing as I jumped away to my heart’s content.

Recounting the new game to my mother that evening however,  put an end to it immediately.  It also put an abrupt end to Sisi Anna’s job.

A few months later, we heard that Anna had given birth to a healthy baby girl, thereby bringing unspeakable shame to her family who had already cast her off as a moral felon.

Her crime?

Anna was unmarried and the father of her child, who was apparently the married gardener from a few houses away, was refusing to take responsibility.

I am still filled with abhorrence at the thought of the role that Anna had wished me to play as her abortionist.

But with the passage of the years, I have grown to appreciate what levels of  desperation and despair must have led her to approach a clueless little child to assist her in finding a way out of her predicament.

Make no mistake; I don’t condone the measures that she took, especially since they involved an innocent party, myself. Rather, I am more open to understanding why she took such recourse.

Abortion is a topic that leaves a sour taste on many people’s tongues.

Walk the streets of Harare in Zimbabwe and you will come across many metallic placards featuring messages against the act, even citing biblical scripture about the detestability of murder in God’s eyes.

But just as we moralise and rationalise on end about whether or not sex work represents deviant behaviour, and whether or not it should be decriminalised, we go down the same torturous path when it comes to the abortion debate.

And the simple truth – as with sex work – is that regardless of the discourse and debates that take place, abortions continue to happen, whether sanctioned by the state, or deemed illegal.

Every day, young women all over Africa are having abortions.

According to research released by the Guttmacher Insitute last year, 5.6 million abortions were carried out in Africa in 2003. Only 100 000 of these were performed under safe conditions – that is, by individuals with the necessary skills, and in an environment that conformed to minimum medical standards.

And with only three African countries (Cape Verde, South Africa and Tunisia) giving unrestricted legal access to abortion to women, it would be safe to assume gross underreporting when it comes to figures pertaining to rates of abortion on the continent.

I’ll give a practical example of why I believe this is so.

Some years ago, when I was in university and living in a hostel, one of my hostel mates had an unsafe abortion. She told no one about it until she was forced to. Having  bled continuously for three weeks and in the process having exhausted her supply of sanitary ware at a time when this was a scarce commodity in Zimbabwe, she was forced to confide in a few of us that she needed help.

It’s not that we couldn’t tell that she was unwell. She had stopped interacting with anyone and when she surfaced in the communal bathrooms she looked wan and weak.

But finally, she decided to break her silence and share that she’d visited an old woman who’d given her a tablet to take for her ‘condition’. This tablet, my hostel mate, confided, made her uterus burn with acid pain and soon, she began to bleed.

She bled for all of a month and prohibited us from telling the matrons or even seeking medical assistance for her. All we could do was supply her with iron tablets, cotton wool and pads and eventually even mutton cloth to help her cope with the bleeding.

And that abortion, as well as many others, was not ever officially registered.

Why, you might ask, would women go to such desperate lengths to have an abortion?

For many young women, the cultural stigma of being an unwed mother is so strong that they feel they have to go to any length to avoid bringing shame and disgrace to their families in this way. A few years ago, a family friend committed suicide because her boyfriend had disowned the five-month-old foetus burgeoning within her womb. In her note to her parents she stated that it would be better that she died than bring humiliation to their Christian name.

Inherent in this cultural stigma is often the desertion of the partner or male responsible for the pregnancy, thus relegating the woman to position of a single mother.

And let’s not also forget that sometimes, a pregnancy is unexpected and unwanted and that the woman decides that she is simply not prepared for motherhood.

I doubt that this is ever an easy decision, but it is surely made more difficult not only by the lack of access to services such as hygienic abortions and counselling, but also by patriarchal hegemony that still prescribes the roles of women in society (ie. if you are unmarried you have no right to know anything about sex, let alone have a child).

Also, I am sure that the social perception of contraceptives, particularly condoms( which research has shown diminish in levels of usage as a relationship grows) plays a large role in the frequency of unprotected sexual acts, thereby putting women at risk of unplanned pregnancy as well as a host of other sexual infections.

Culture is the cohesive glue that binds communities together, but for many women, it is the hangman’s noose on which their freedoms are choked.

As I write, I wonder whatever became of Anna and her daughter; whether she grew to accept the child that separated her from her family; or whether her family ever took her back into their fold.

It is indeed a tragedy that so many women have to sacrifice one thing or the other for the sake of saving face in society.

For us, freedom and parity are still but utopian concepts.

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