African Women's Rights Groups Dismayed By U.S. Abortion Move


The United States' relationship with Africa has always been somewhat strained, as unequal match ups often are, and president Donald Trump's abrasive rhetoric towards the region has not helped.

Ironically, however, his administration's crackdown on abortion will likely resonate with most of the continent's political leaders, even as it alienates rights groups which have historically held Washington up as a champion of personal freedoms they accuse African leaders of stifling.

US states, including Alabama, Georgia and Missouri, have moved to outlaw abortion after the first few weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest.

Anxiety among women's reproductive rights organisations has filtered across the Atlantic Ocean to the world's poorest continent, where donor funding is essential to providing female healthcare such as contraception and, where necessary, terminations.

The International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) says a memorandum issued by Trump in 2017, which prevents foreign non-governmental organisations that accept US global health funds from engaging in abortion-related activities, is harming the health and well-being of women.

The so-called global gag rule, which applies not only to what groups do with US global health funding but also with non-US government funds, forces healthcare providers to choose between providing a comprehensive spectrum of reproductive healthcare, and receiving critical American funding.

"The policy is exacerbating existing barriers to accessing healthcare, making a broad range of services less accessible, including comprehensive abortion care, contraceptive services, HIV-AIDS testing and treatment, screening for cervical cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and support for survivors of gender-based violence," the IWHC said.

A fact-sheet compiled by the World Health Organisation in February 2018 showed that the risk of dying from an unsafe abortion was the highest in Africa, where thousands of women often resort to furtive backstreet procedures. Some 520 deaths occur per 100 000 unsafe abortions in the sub-Saharan region, versus an estimated 30 deaths for every 100 000 unsafe abortions in the developed world. This is because an estimated 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries where abortion is either prohibited altogether, or permitted only to save the life of women, or to preserve their physical or mental health, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights.


Abortion is not permitted for any reason at all in 10 out of 54 African countries.

Earlier this month, Kenya's high court ruled that rape survivors were entitled to an abortion, and awarded some three million Kenyan shillings (nearly US$30 000) in damages to the mother of a teenage victim who died last year from injuries sustained from an illegal abortion after she was raped in 2014 at the age of 15.

Authorities in the East African country have ordered the pulling down of about a dozen anti-abortion billboards in the capital Nairobi that women's rights groups said stigmatised women who terminated pregnancies. Four African countries have relatively liberal abortion laws: Zambia permits abortion for health and socio-economic reasons, while Cape Verde, Tunisia and South Africa permit abortion without restriction as to reason, with gestational limits.

Even in South Africa, probably Africa's most liberal country where a woman can get an abortion on request if she is not more than 12 weeks pregnant, less than one in 10 public clinics actually perform abortions, and health workers have a right to refuse to provide the service if morally opposed to it.

Access to safe, legal abortions is also hampered by a general lack of resources, particularly in rural areas, sending women to cheaper, illegal providers. And even here, abortion carries the risk of a backlash. Last week, a South African court sentenced a 39-year-old man to 12 years in prison after he repeatedly stabbed his 44-year-old girlfriend to death in 2018 for ending her pregnancy without his consent. Not all news stories have been so tragic.

Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, showed some uncharacteristic leniency by pardoning in April nearly 400 women and girls convicted of acquiring or assisting in abortions.

Rwanda has revised its law to allow terminations of pregnancies resulting from rape, forced marriage and incest, or in cases where there is a health risk to the mother or the foetus. The moves against abortion in the US are in fact out of step even with some countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Global Fund for Women vice president Leila Hessini said. "We're not seeing right now in the Middle East and North Africa a desire to make laws more punitive and more restrictive for women who need abortions and providers," Hessini told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in May.

"We are seeing that in the US."

* Stella Mapenzauswa is a Johannesburg-based journalist, media consultant and trainer who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, for more than two decades.

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