Written by Sexual Reproductive Health Rights Africa Trust (SAT)
In Zimbabwe, the communities we worked with had limited knowledge of the 1977 Termination of Pregnancy Act (TOP) – which allows for termination of a pregnancy in instances of rape, incest, and threat to the health of the mother or foetus – and as a result, even when a girl or woman was legally eligible for a safe abortion they would opt for an unsafe, backyard abortion.
There was a fear of being ostracized, and strong religious beliefs.
The Sexual Reproductive Health Rights Africa Trust (SAT) – in partnership with Women’s Action Group and Katswe Sistahood – implemented a project titled ‘Unlocking safe spaces for comprehensive SRHR, safe and legal abortions for women and adolescent girls in Zimbabwe’ (USSCLAZ). The project was funded by AmplifyChange and sought to address the causes related to unsafe abortions and poor access to sexual and reproductive health services. The project also advocated for law reform on abortion and to address issues of stigma and discrimination associated with abortions in Zimbabwe.
Our entry point to address unsafe abortions in the communities was premised on the more ‘acceptable’ and less controversial agenda of addressing teenage pregnancies; the high prevalence rates of STIs and HIV amongst young people; and access to SRHR services including contraception.
By addressing these issues first, the more taboo issues within communities could then be tackled, such as the deaths of women and girls through unsafe and illegal abortions; unplanned pregnancies by young women/girls often leading to child marriages; and in some cases, clandestine abortions were subsequently also discussed, as well as incest – where cases of incest were resolved at the family level to protect perpetrators (who may be family members) at the detriment of the girl child.
Many community members knew of someone who had had an unplanned pregnancy, dropped out of school due to pregnancy or died from an unsafe abortion. These close-to-home realities paved the way for engagement with the communities and enabled SAT to broach the subject of access to safe abortions.
The lack of knowledge in sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and of the 1977 TOP Act for women and girls, opened pathways for engagements with communities on understanding comprehensive SRHR and the legal provisions of the TOP Act. This helped communities to have an appreciation of SRHR issues and to break the myth that abortion in Zimbabwe is illegal.
This increased knowledge about SRHR within the community, opened opportunities to engage and sensitise the cultural and religious gatekeepers. In the past, these traditional and religious leaders were not fully supportive of the safe abortion agenda, due to a limited understanding and knowledge, which was extremist.
Some traditional leaders considered the abortion agenda as taboo and thought abortion was negatively impacting the way of life for communities. The continued engagement with these leaders through value clarification attitudes and transformation resulted in more progressive attitudes on TOP and SRHR.
At the policy level, SAT worked with policy makers to review the cumbersome administrative barriers affecting safe, legal abortion to take place and developed the draft regulations for the review of the TOP Act with considerations for the expansion of the conditions for a termination of pregnancy to include socio-economic circumstances and issues of mental health.
Social media was also used to reach a wider audience. Twitter sessions for example – especially on cause days like ‘Safe Abortion Day’ – were held, tackling critical issues, and showing the various and mostly negative perceptions that people had around abortion.
There were significant results from the project around the transformation of communities’ attitudes. Communities were more accommodating of women and girls who had had an abortion, and religious and cultural leaders made a commitment to be non-judgmental and learn more about how they could destigmatise abortion.
The project was able to develop draft administrative regulations and a draft TOP with the provision for expanding the circumstances for legal and safe abortions.
A movement of safe abortion activists is now active, and these sensitize the community on the current provisions of the TOP.
Access to SRHR and HIV services continue to be the soft landing for introducing TOP.