I must have been about 14 years growing up in the late 90s in rural Uganda when I overheard a conversation about abortion by a group of women. It was one of those days close to going back to school, the most stressful time for parents, with education still mainly resting on the shoulders of families, very an out-of-pocket, private expenditure in the face of inconsistent public spending on facilities and human resources. The women had communed to share their school fees and hustling woes. Then one woman I recall vividly telling the rest, “ If I found out I was pregnant today, it would straight up have to be an abortion, nothing to think about,” she said. “I would rather die than carry another pregnancy and add another child to my life.”
From the certainty of this woman’s voice, even today, I know that nothing can stop a person who doesn’t want to keep a pregnancy. And anyone faced with such a difficult choice is criminalised or denied access in most of Africa. Today July 31, as we celebrate Pan-African Women’s Day, we must remember that the struggle for reproductive justice and dignity for African women, in all their diversities across geographies, sexual orientation, gender identities, and beyond colonial borders is nowhere near the end. The deployment of women’s bodies in the political arena to be debated, controlled, criminalised remains a great threat to realisation of our freedom.
A little over a month ago, the US Supreme Court receded the Roe V Wade legislation ending abortion rights guarantees in America, sending shock waves beyond the country’s borders. We know these threats to the freedoms of women and minorites within the empire whose tentacles reach the remotest parts of the world are not just a domestic affair.
This month together with seven others at the Nalafem Collective published our collective stories under I am Nala book. So many powerful stories of overcoming, courage and resistance from different African countries.
Editor Novuyo Rosa Tshuma describes the book, “The women in this anthology are deeply attuned to the challenges and hardships faced by women and girls on the African continent and in the Diaspora…Triumphantly, these hardships fuel these inspiring women to claim their right to humanity, in this way effecting change in their societies and trailblazing a path for women and girls in Africa and beyond.”
In the book I reflect on reproductive justice, colonial patriarchal erasure of African systems of imparting sexual knowledge, linking it to today’s challenges to women and girls’ bodily autonomy from home to schools, communities to national debating chambers.
The regression of women’s rights in America has the potential to impede our advance even when we have built our resistance movements and found the agency in ways that will sustain our freedom in the face of such attacks.
Regressive attacks on abortion as a right usually target a set of rights, including access to contraception, sexuality education, assisted reproduction, and rights of LGBTQI communities. Adolescent health has also increasingly become labeled a ‘controversial issue’ with opposition to teenagers accessing contraception and health education. Some countries still maintain parental consent laws restricting adolescents’ access to health services, including HIV treatment.
The heavy reliance on American funding of country and global health systems has before brought devastating impacts from George W. Bush to Donald Trump administration policies such as Global Gag Rule and the Geneva Consensus Declaration passed some with puppetry support from some African governments. These policies left millions of people without vital services alongside emboldening populist political leaders and religious fundamentalists who stretched their influence in various African capitals with enormous funding.
Over the last month, I spoke with various African women’s rights organizers, scholars, lawyers and defenders on the current transnational tides against women and minority rights.
Dr. Satang Nabaneh, international scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center from The Gambia notes developments like the “proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers in countries with liberal abortion regimes, such as South Africa” which are known for “providing directive counseling, spreading misinformation on abortion procedures, and disseminating religious propaganda.”
Dr. Nabaneh says “we must channel all our anger into taking action to safeguard existing abortion rights and prevent backsliding. African feminists should continue to counter-mobilize and respond to the backlash and continue efforts to chip away at hard-won rights in Africa.” In the era of increasing politics of masculinist restoration, authoritarian governance, the rise of populism, and white supremacy, we need to be strategic. We should leverage intersectional organizing as a strategy that builds solidarity across issues, organizations, and communities. There is power in collective action!.”
Memory Zonde-Kachambwa, Executive Director at the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) says “Roe vs Wade debate is a wake-up call not only for the US but also for us in Africa in terms of ensuring that our legal frameworks should be binding and leave no loopholes for reversal of gains.”
From experience of decades of organizing and securing some critical victories in some African countries, women’s and feminist movements have used different tactics to stay above and pushed back where regression of rights has been registered. Feminist litigation has been vital, with people like Sibongile Ndashe, lawyer and Executive Director of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA), at the helm. They are calling for renewed efforts after the overturn of Roe V Wade.
“We can’t afford to work in silos as anti-abortion, LGBTQI, or comprehensive sexuality activists. We can’t train people to fight lone attackers when we know that the transnational forces are attacking as a mob,” she says activists “identifying and responding to the specific threats that they are facing is far more productive than cutting and pasting strategies that have been developed to respond to specific contexts that don’t share a lot of similarities with our own.”
Though there’s been significant regional developments and domestic reforms, for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo law reform and Benin in 2021, becoming the seventh country in the continent to legalize abortion in the first trimester, Sierra Leone’s recent bill that seeks to legalise abortion, such progress is almost always followed by aggressive campaigns by anti-rights groups. So securing those progressive steps is important work.
Today there are fewer countries with solid guarantees of sexual and reproductive rights on the continent. Most African countries still restrict abortion to only on medical grounds for saving a mother’s life – remnants of colonial legislation. The criminalization extends beyond the pregnant person to anyone assisting them, further targeting relations and healthcare workers. This has driven high unsafe abortion-related death, making Africa world leading continent. During 2010–2014, an estimated 8.2 million induced abortions occurred each year in Africa; an average of about one in four abortions in Africa were safe, according to Guttmacher Institute.
Although many African countries ratified the continental mechanism that guarantees greater rights for women and girls – the Maputo Protocol – many have done so with reservation to article 14(2)C on reproductive health and abortion ‘in cases of sexual assault, incest, rape, and when the pregnancy endangers a mother’s mental and physical well-being.
Today an estimated 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries with restrictive abortion laws while some countries still prohibit access in totality. Criminalization disproportionately impacts the marginalized and women and girls from lower social-economic backgrounds who already are disenfranchised by existing systems of power and access to resources. Besides the greater risk for an unsafe abortion resulting in health complications or death and trapping women in cycles of economic strife, a significant percentage of women in prisons in many African countries are there on reproductive related convictions.
For instance, in 2017, more than 10 percent of the overall female prison population were women convicted on cases of abortion and infanticide cases in Rwanda. In 2019 Rwanda’s president then pardoned 367 people convicted for the offenses of abortion, complicity in abortion, and infanticide, followed by ten girls last year. In Senegal in 2015, 19% of female prisoners were incarcerated on the grounds of abortion or infanticide.
Gender injustice has been normalised through upholding colonial- patriarchal hold on the uterus and exerting control of on bodies of those who can get pregnant by any means necessary.
This Pan-African Women’s Day finds African countries, like most of the world, riling from heightened gross sexual and gender-based violations during the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic which exposed the glaring gaps in protection and social safety of African girls and women. We cannot afford any further regression with such high rates of teenage pregnancies, child marriage, harmful cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation, and increased risk of HIV/AIDs. Communities are already facing unprecedented economic strife from the pandemic’s socio-economic fallout and the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“African human rights movements, especially feminist movements, now more than ever, need to ramp up their public education and campaigns to educate citizens about the importance of human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights,” says Fadekemi Akinfaderin, the Advocacy chief at Fòs Feminista. “We need to hold our governments accountable for implementing progressive policies in their countries.”
Primah Kwagala, a Ugandan lawyer and Director at the Women’s Probono Initiative, says, “African countries need to invest in building sustainable and comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights ecosystems and services, prioritize resourcing from the community to national and regional, beginning with the most marginalized and vulnerable populations.”
Tinatswe Mhaka, Zimbabwean feminist lawyer and host of the feminist bar podcast, says that “the continent needs to develop independence of thought on matters of reproductive rights specifically targeting stigma in an African context. Our emancipation lies in disengaging from and refusing to be led by policy reform that up until now has posed as progressive and more thought out than what we can create for ourselves as Africans.”
We must study and steadily tackle the growing intolerance and demands of anti-rights groups who want to erode the already secured rights of women. Their entry point is the right of women to control their own bodies and to live free from imposition. Our focus must be on the rights already eroded under the pandemic and how to eliminate inequalities and human suffering.
The fight remains to defeat morality-based policy and interventions that overlook diverse African lived experiences and replace them with evidence-based and indigenous ways of knowing that firmly secure women’s rights. In these challenging times – surviving a pandemic and economic strife- we must do more conscientization work and build a future where equality is still feasible for everyone.
Centering reproductive rights at the heart of civic liberties organizing is crucial beyond this being a clarion call by women. To be for ALL Africans – to claim Pan-Africanism, to be for ALL African women’s liberation – means one must reflect and act on colonial patriarchal chains that still hold us back through societal, religious and legal controls and constraints to ALL African women’s freedoms.
You can buy the I am Nala book from African Books Collective.