– Nghidimondjila Hashikutuva
On 11 June 2020, psychological counsellor and activist Beauty Boois started a petition on change.org, demanding the legalisation of abortion on demand in Namibia, and the liberalisation of abortion laws in the country.
However, despite its success (the petition received over 60,000 signatures in less than a month), and the extensive nationwide debate on reproductive rights and justice that followed, Namibia still has not seen any legal and/or policy reform that increases the accessibility to safe abortions.
Abortion on demand in Namibia is prohibited by the Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, passed during apartheid South Africa, and transferred to the then South West Africa in 1977 (and to Namibia at independence). Historians believe that the enactment of the Act was racially-motivated, and that it sought to ensure that the Afrikaner community maintained dominance – even by population – in South Africa.
In the Act, abortion is only permissible under certain conditions: where the pregnancy is deemed a health risk to the pregnant woman, where the fetus is highly likely to be born with serious biological defects, or where the conception was through rape or incest. The permissibility, however, would only exist upon the certification (and discretion) of two independent medical doctors, the head-surgeon of the health district and the district magistrate.
Some Namibians feel that these provisions of permissibility are enough. However, reflecting on her petition’s first anniversary, Boois believes that abortion laws in the country are “restrictive” and “seep into the consciousness of marginalised people (women), and make them believe that they indeed have no control over their bodies, lives and rights.”
“Laws and policies can be used to subjugate, oppress and discriminate against marginalised people; denying them the full enjoyment of their bodily autonomy, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and access to important healthcare services such as abortion,” she says.
Just two years before Boois started their petition, the former Minister of Health, Bernard Haufiku, reported that in 2017 alone, state hospitals across the country dealt with over 7,000 cases of unsafe, septic and/or incomplete abortions. While these statistics, in general, are difficult to come by, healthcare professionals believe that the actual numbers are higher, as not all women who undergo unsafe abortions seek post-abortion care.
“Some girls opt to deal with it at home because of the stigma attached to abortions, and the fear of getting into trouble with their parents or even the police,” a healthcare worker who prefers to not be named points out.
One such woman is 21 year old *Tresia who, in early 2021, used a pill that she was promised would terminate her pregnancy “immediately”. At the time, she was almost four months pregnant.
Tresia had told her boyfriend that she was pregnant, and he said that he was neither ready, nor willing to be a father. Instead, he would buy her pills that would, “make it go away.”
He did not, however, mention that the pills could only safely be administered by a health care professional, or that they were not even intended to terminate pregnancies. Or that she would have to try and force them – whatever they were – into her vagina.
So, after two days, Tresia started experiencing outbursts of blood from her vagina. Then excruciating headaches.
And then she asked a friend to remove the remains of whatever was stuck in her uterus.
Tresia did not seek medical care, as she was afraid that her parents would find out. She also has not spoken to many of her friends, because she is afraid that they may see her differently.
“This is a story that I have to keep to myself. I must just deal with it myself. People are going to judge me. They will say that I am a wh*re who falls pregnant and ‘murders innocent children’,” she says softly.
The stigmatisation that Tresia fears re-affirms a study conducted in 2011 by the Namibian Women’s Health Network, and which study concluded that women who had undergone abortions faced extreme stigma. The study also stressed that majority of Namibians believe that abortion – even in the instances contemplated in the Act – is ‘wrong, sinful and illegal’.
A study by Sarah Mwatilifange and Dr. Lucy Edwards-Stauch also revealed that, while Namibians are aware of the negative implications of unsafe abortions, acknowledge the that restrictive abortion laws do not prevent unsafe abortions and understand that women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies; majority do not believe that women have the right to terminate their pregnancies on demand, legally and safely.
It is these contexts and these failures to “educate broadly about gender equality and reproductive rights – as Mwatilifange and Dr. Edwards-Stauch put it — that have pushed Boois to become actively engaged in social justice movement building and coalition creation; to amplify advocacy messages for access to safe abortions.
They are the co-founder of the Voices for Choices & Rights Coalition— a nationwide movement of voices “advocating for the choices reflective of bodily autonomy and freedom from the structural violence of restrictive abortion laws.”
Reflecting on lessons learned from their activism, they say, “We should tap more into the collective power of people in order to bring about social justice and liberty for all. We should litigate, use communications and awareness strategies and strengthen the provision of existing health services.”
*Not her real name