– Frieda Ndeutala Kaunapawa Mukufa
Coming from a black household that is deeply Christian and is highly embedded into culture and tradition, the topic of abortion is a no go at the table of discussion. It is often shunned upon to even fathom the idea that a woman should feel the need and choose to terminate a pregnancy because she feels like it. With this practice, comes the imprisonment of women when it comes to their freedom and bodily autonomy. In the same breath, if that is not punishment enough, these women are often raped and their rape is often categorized under the branches of victim blaming: she started to be sexually active at a young age, meanwhile, it is the men who prey upon these children. The Oshiwambo culture is deeply embedded in the notion that the girl child is ready to bear children as young as the age of 15 if not less. This is a belief that has its roots in the practice of what is called okufukala meengomba, otherwise known as Olufuko. Olufuko process, a 15-year-old, the girl child is often married off as soon as they are done with the process. As much as this olufuko practices has pushed for the normalized sexual engagements of older men with younger girls, it is of paramount importance to also note that, traditionally, when the girls were done with the initiation process, they were given the liberty to decide if they would like to get married, should they be approached by a suitor. This is worth an applause, but does still not take away from the fact that tradition and culture has made it a norm for older men to approach younger girls, in hope for marriage. One may also argue that, as a result, these girls were groomed from the get go of the initiation and their place would only be in the kitchen and run to households. An important point to make is that, even those who choose to engage in marriages with these older men and end up having sexual relations with them, consenting to sexual relations is not consenting to a baby. As a result, women should be given the right to decide whether or not they want to procreate.
Although now the practice is not done as in the olden days where children are married off as soon as the initiation is done, the belief that these children were ready to bear children and steer households is what is passed on as a lineage within the deeply traditionally embedded Oshiwambo households. Because most men grew up seeing this practice, they automatically approach young girls because ‘they are ready.’ This idea often gives the men the illusion that the girl child is someone that is capable of spearheading a household. Intrinsically, they are capable of handling giving birth. So, in return, the men who end up raping these minors are people who practice tradition on the bodies of these innocent girls.
In my family, the elders have excused this behaviour twice. The first time, a niece of mine got pregnant at the age of 15. The man was 25. The family elders did not even flinch at the thought of the fact that this girl was raped and that they let a perpetrator lose without justice. Instead, she was met with comments such as that she was a whore and she should’ve listened when she was told to not have sexual relations with ‘big men.’ Sadly, within the black community, there exists no such thing as a teaching and discussion approach. There is only what we call ‘warning’. The girl child is not taught on what sexual intercourse is or what implications come with it, instead, she is just told that associating yourself with older men makes you an oshikumbu. In the same breath, these children are taught to submit and practically worship men at an early age, and as a result, when an older man approaches them, they are already indoctrinated to do as they are told and not question his intentions. In the absence of being taught and having open discussions on what sexual intercourse is, there is no knowledge and teachings from parents. There is rather fear and a girl child who is shamed for the consequences of patriarchy.
However so, in as much as the abortion law exists, it very well co-exists well with tradition, culture and Christianity. The abortion law is deeply embedded in Christian laws that are oppressing the freedom of women who are supposed to exercise full body autonomy over themselves with choosing whether to have an abortion or not. The introduction of Christianity came with colonialism and the colonialists capitalized on the traditional aspect of seeing a woman as a child-bearer and nothing more. As it stands, Namibia still operates under the Sterilization and Abortion Act of 1975 which states that abortions can only be performed legally under three conditions; when the pregnancy could seriously threaten a woman’s life or her physical or mental health would cause severe handicap to the child; or was the result of rape (which has to be proven), incest or other unlawful intercourse, such as with a woman with a permanent mental handicap. As if that is not enough, to qualify for an abortion under these circumstances, women would have to receive approval from two independent physicians, neither of whom could perform the actual procedure and sometimes, the approval of a psychiatrist or a magistrate is necessary. As such, often the debate of whether a woman or a girl can access an abortion leads to a debate on the rights of the woman versus the rights of the unborn foetus. As a contributing factor, Christianity argues that abortion is a sin or a form of transgression of morality. Consequently, it is vital to acknowledge that religion has played a key influencing part regarding how individuals perceive and feel about abortion. Religious doctrines across the world share a concern for the moral status of the foetus, the destruction of life and the societal norms that govern human behaviour and this often leaves the choice of the woman out of the decision-making body.
These abortion conditions not only limit the freedom of bodily autonomy for women who would want to have safe abortions because they do not want a child, but it also thrives in conservative traditional households where young girls are raped by older men and the matter is swept away. In a recent incident with my family, a 16-year-old was raped by a neighbour. When the people found out, she became a laughing stock at family gatherings and was met with remarks of ‘uunona vopaife oviilonga iipala’. This directly translates to, ‘nowadays children have taught themselves about sexual activities.’ The two families met and the people who were responsible for my cousin said that, if the perpetrator is willing to take care of both the mother and the child, then it is fine. Where does this leave the opinion of the mother? Where is her right towards her body? The very same people that are to make the right decisions for her, chose to let her remain with the baby knowing that she is young and has no idea on how to even take care of a child? Until when do we want to subject our girl-children to the shackles of traditional laws that argue that abortion is killing? And for the perpetrator, what then happens to him? Would he keep raping other women and just get away with it? What measures are taken for him? These are probing questions that should be brought up within Oshiwambo speaking family households who do not hold their daughters’ perpetrators accountable for their actions.
THE WAVE OF CHANGE
A recent study by Mwatilifange and Edwards-Jauch showed that majority of the youth held conservative views regarding making abortion both legal and accessible to women. The sample was made up of youths from Katutura, majority of whom did not agree that a woman has the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy legally or safely. This goes without saying that this conservative view is a dominant one in Namibian society, given the resistance and push-back by Christian and right-wing groups every time this debate emerges. One may choose to argue that, most people who are anti-abortion do not take the time to look into the consequences of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. P Hinman & C Holt (1998) argue that, ‘forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy until the end imposes irreparable circumstances that can change her relationship with her body, sexuality, self-worth, friends, family, lovers, work, financial status, mental and physical well-being and interfere with her life goals.’ Thus, the consequences are often not elaborated on when conversations are had around protecting the interest of the unborn. Instead, what Christianity and tradition emphasises is that motherhood is the most fulfilling role for a woman as it is said to create the expectation that she should carry the pregnancy to term no matter the consequences to herself. As a progressive nation that wants to achieve equality for all in 2030, we should steer away from shaming women who would wish to terminate pregnancies that they do not want to carry to full term. We should also be considerate in that, taking note that not every woman and or feminist is “anti-motherhood”. We understand that there exists a large number of women who would appreciate being mothers. However, that desire should not infringe the freedom of choice for those who wish otherwise when it comes to motherhood because the fundamental goal is to reiterate and support the right of a woman to basic self-determination over her body, life and her right to decide. And let’s not forget that many mothers seek abortions too.
As such, in as much as there exists spaces that cater to women who are raped, those spaces are all but hypothetical. Women and children seeking them are often laughed at by police and don’t have the resources financially, physically, or emotionally to go through all the red tape, often alone and while traumatized and all the while being victim-blamed every step of the way. We need to do better. There needs to be a change within the community and cultural surroundings. The only way we can fully advocate for change and it being received well and implemented is to sensitise the people in the communities about the rights of women. It would mean teaching the entitled powerheads of patriarchy about bodily autonomy and consent. Advocating for the legalising of abortion goes beyond the apartheid rules that only cater to raped, endangered expecting mothers and those who have underlying medical conditions. It should transcend above and beyond to every other woman who does not want to bear a child at this time in her life and under these circumstances or ever. It should be a common right for every woman at any time.
Sensitising people around the topic and choice of abortion should not only happen in spaces where conversations are welcomed like urban spaces. These conversations and proper education need to be taken to the villages where tradition is still a bigger influence. In the Oshiwambo culture, when the people practiced the initiation process of olufuko, the girls were given the choice to accept and or deny a proposal from a suitor. As such, before the introduction of Christianity and colonialism, the Oshiwambo speaking people already exercised the concept of reproductive choice and consent within its community. This is then what needs to be an agenda point when attempting to re-educate and create awareness on issues such as abortion. Using that concept of choice that was practiced during olufuko will serve as a reminder that women should be granted the freedom of choice around their bodies. This concept of choice is then central to reproductive health because at the end of the day, bodily autonomy is the goal we want and should achieve, but it is also our cultural heritage. Culture should not be made to be a stagnant chassel that it never was to begin with, simply to conform to the views of Christianity and Colonial patriarchy. African culture is dynamic, nuanced, and responsive to the needs of the community and should return to those roots.