Abortion linked to high number of women’s deathsBy: JANA-MARI SMITH
RESTRICTED reproductive rights and hostile clinical environments remain key contributors to the rate of unsafe abortions and baby dumping in Namibia.
At the launch of a booklet on women’s experiences with abortion in Namibia, titled ‘I was afraid that people might read it from my face’, the topic of maternal mortality – the death of women linked to pregnancies – was discussed.
The booklet, launched by the Namibian Women’s Health Network (NWHN), consists of 19 stories told by women and girls, aged between 12 and 24. The stories are all personal accounts of the traumas these women endured during an unwanted pregnancy and the choices they made to end their pregnancies.
The stories include accounts of various methods used by desperate girls in desperate situations. These include drinking concoctions containing ink, petrol and boiled newspapers, and the use of objects such as sticks and metal clothes hangers to end the pregnancy.
The stories also include the truth that many die as a result of their deadly decisions. All the stories emphasise the fact that young women and girls in Namibia face a complex web of stigma, fear and beliefs which force them to harm themselves when they are faced with unwanted pregnancies.
According to reports, 16 per cent of maternal deaths in Namibia are linked to unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies – although a lack of research by Government has restricted information on the issue.
According to the booklet, abortion in Namibia is legal only in exceptional circumstances such as rape or when the woman’s health is at risk.
Although the Ministry of Health has highlighted the high rate of deaths related to pregnancies in Namibia, “discussions around the antiquated pre-independence abortion law have remained limited”.
The testimonies in the booklet highlight some of the problems related to unwanted pregnancies in Namibia. These range from a “lack of parent-child communication, lack of access to contraceptives, sexual violence, lack of sexuality education and poverty ...”.
According to NWHN, one of the primary concerns highlighted by young women is that “family planning in Namibia for young girls is very hostile”. As a result, the “poor healthcare provider attitudes increase the risks of unwanted pregnancies and related health issues”.
Another issue in Namibia is the “dominant male role in most Namibian households … which deprives many women of the choice to use contraceptives or to say no to sex”.
Jenniver Gatsi Mallet, Director of NWHN, said at the launch that there is an urgent need to “undertake further research on this issue, so that we can understand the extent and impact of this problem in Namibia”.
In the booklet, she notes that “the barriers to women’s ability to obtain safe legal abortions under the current law must be removed, including people’s belief that abortion is completely illegal.
And we must re-evaluate the law to ascertain if it supports Namibia’s commitments to ensuring women’s full reproductive rights”.
One of the widespread beliefs in Namibia is that legalising abortion will lead to an increasing demand for abortions. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that “regions with less restrictive abortion laws have low rates of induced abortion; unsafe abortions are non-existent or the rate is very low”.
Baby dumping, a major issue in Namibia, could be eradicated with less restrictive abortion laws, studies have found. In 2008, officials at Windhoek’s Gammams Water Treatment Works reported that on average 13 newborn infants were found dead among human waste from toilets.
The statistic demonstrates a high incidence of unwanted pregnancies in Namibia.
Studies done in the late 1990s found that more than 7 000 women were admitted with abortion-related complications in four years. Because of the lack of research to date, the current number is unclear, but many say it is likely to be much higher.
The booklet concludes that “maternal morbidity and mortality could be reduced if safe abortion services were provided”.