Written by Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande, SRHR activist
Before November 2017, advocacy on abortion in Zimbabwe was very challenging due to a highly conservative, religious society and the high levels of stigma surrounding abortion. There was also the widespread belief that abortion was illegal. Abortion is legal in Zimbabwe but only under the limited grounds offered by the Termination of Pregnancy Act. Those grounds are: rape, incest and if the pregnancy presents a risk to the life of the woman or the child. These limited grounds, combined with the administrative challenges of accessing safe abortion, have led to many unsafe abortions taking place in the country. To try to change this situation, many diverse civil society organisations (CSOs) were working on safe abortion advocacy in Zimbabwe, and there were multiple different coalitions on the issue.
Despite positive pressures from the international community as well as from some communities within Zimbabwe, the closed space around abortion made it very difficult for advocates to make progress on safe abortion. This changed when Mugabe left.
Although having a diverse range of CSOs with different expertise was in many ways positive, it also made it difficult for them to agree on shared goals; on advocacy messaging; or to form a coordinated strategy for influencing policy makers. The existence of multiple coalitions on safe abortion, each with their different priorities and strategies (often related to funding), was also a challenge to effective co-ordination of activities and information.
With Mugabe’s departure, CSOs took advantage to have more open conversations at a community and policy level. However, with their differing goals and approaches there were several instances during the 2018 elections when the lack of coordinated messaging and activities resulted in key opportunities to influence policy makers being missed.
This experience made the CSOs realise how much work they had to do if their safe abortion advocacy was to be effective – they had to build a movement and be much better coordinated, presenting united and streamlined messages. Lessons were learned from this and, despite advocating from different perspectives, the CSOs built consensus around the need for advocacy to focus on the expansion of the grounds for abortion in the Termination of Pregnancy Act. This shared goal has now become the rallying point for safe abortion advocacy in the country.
There are still challenges ahead with the government showing little interest in changing the law now the elections have passed. However, with a stronger, more cohesive advocacy movement CSOs are in a much better position to change the situation.
What they learnt was that when trying to influence busy policy makers, the following are key:
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Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande is a professor of Sociology, with experience in gender and women’s empowerment issues including women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. She is the author of several publications including a book chapter on the women’s movement and the struggle for land in Zimbabwe, which traces the development of the women’s movement around land issues in the country. She has also written a training manual on the inter-linkages between culture, gender, women’s rights and HIV and how advocacy in highly sensitive cultural contexts is developed.
University of Zimbabwe website