Illegal abortion: through the eyes of a victim
You are a young girl, aged 16. You have had unprotected sex and now you are pregnant with a child you are not prepared to look after. You are alone and terrified. How do you tell your parents who are devoutly religious and barely earn enough to pay for your education? The father of your child has suddenly become non-committal and unavailable.
Your friend recommends that you go to a backstreet abortionist and after much deliberation and fighting within yourself you agree to go. The backstreet abortionist quarters looks unsanitary, with filth and grime on the walls. Everything within you screams to leave as quickly as you can…but you stay.
As instructed you lie down on a hard table and not too long afterwards, you feel a metal-like object going through your womb. The pain is unbearable and a piercing wail escapes your mouth. The bleeding doesn’t stop and you are forced to tell your parents what has happened. You are taken to hospital and while the bleeding ends, the shame lasts forever.
You are unable to bear another child. Your parents do not hide their disappointment in you. In church, you squirm uncomfortably as your pastor mentions abortion as a sin and the entire congregation turns to glance at you. Wherever you go, people whisper to each other: “That’s her!” and shake their heads. It’s as if the blood of your abortion has remained plastered on you for everyone to pass judgement.
This may not only be your story but the story of your daughter, your sister or your niece. Abortion may be argued about in parliaments, in the courts and in the spaces of the media but at the heart of many abortion stories in Southern Africa is a young girl who made a decision, and continues to pay the physical and emotional price for it.
The issue of abortion is not merely a question of policy to be debated by those who hold power and influence; it is about the people who do not hold any power and influence, and are affected by those policies.
If the needs and decisions of young girls in Southern Africa are not considered to be real or legitimate, then the numbers of illegal abortions in the region will continue to increase.
The pain of having gone through an unsafe abortion is bad enough but our society also tends to add emotional wounds to the physical ones, by ostracising those who have terminated their pregnancies.
We can longer live in denial that many young girls seek the services of backstreet abortionists, that many of them die due to complications and that those who do survive are subjected to treatment that is fit for criminals.
We cannot claim that young women and girls are empowered if we take away their right to make decisions about their bodies by criminalising them when they do so. Let us remember that young women are not merely bodies, they come from different socio-economic contexts, and are also emotional beings. This is what informs the decisions they make and they should not be made prisoners of their decisions.
Decriminalisation of abortion is not enough. Providing safe abortion services is not enough. There needs to be a change in people’s attitudes towards abortion so that young girls are able to access safe abortion services and go back to a society that will not tell them they lack value as individuals for having done so.