- Abortion could be soon legal in predominantly Catholic Mozambique if the Maputo parliament endorses a new bill recently approved by the Council of Ministers. If passed into law, this bill will be "a landmark victory for women, as they will have legal backing to terminate unwanted pregnancies," gender activists hold.
For Mozambican women, the new legislation would mean greater choices when it comes to reproductive health and can put an end to unsafe abortion practices that result in the deaths of thousands of women every year. Unsafe abortion is not only a problem in Mozambique, but throughout Africa where an estimated 4.2 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, most of them illegally.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that unsafe abortions kill about 70,000 women annually around the world. For every woman who dies from an unsafe abortion, many more suffer serious injuries and permanent disabilities, according to WHO.
Lack of access to safe abortions particularly affects the health and safety of young women, gender activists therefore conclude. According to IPAS, a non-governmental organisation that works to promote women's health worldwide, nearly 60 percent of women who have unsafe abortions in Africa are under the age of 25. Tens of millions of women of reproductive age in Africa today will experience an unsafe abortion in their lifetimes.
Mozambique's current laws criminalise abortion, except in some circumstances, for example, when the mother's life is in danger or she does not have the physical and mental ability to care for a child. Some health centres offer pregnancy termination service for a fee. But the fee-based services offered by these centres are out of reach for many poor women who turn to backyard clinics where they illegally abort in unsafe conditions.
The proposed bill is not without some opposition. When the Catholic bishops of Mozambique gathered for their first plenary assembly of 2007 in Maputo in mid-April, the proposed bill was high on the agenda. The bishops drafted a special statement stating, "abortion is a serious sin, a crime against life in Mozambique. It is an act contrary to this nation which has a vast territory and immensely rich resources to develop through population growth for the common good."
Proponents of the bill - mainly non-governmental organisations working in the reproductive health sector, women's organisations and some parliamentarians and other government officials - argue that freedom of choice safeguards the health and welfare of women. The backyard clinics that women currently use operate in secrecy. Under these conditions, even if the women start bleeding, at times she cannot seek medical attention in fear of arrest.
Although in Mozambique there are no readily available statistics, it is estimated that thousands of women die or suffer serious complications every year as a result of trying to abort at the hands of an untrained health provider in unhygienic conditions. "The recent approval of the law by the Council of Ministers provides some light at the end of the tunnel. It is disturbing fact that the government did not prioritise legalising abortion for more than 30 years after independence," activists hold.
At this time when the country waits the passing of the law, government and civic organisations are urged by activists to "take their time to learn for the experiences of countries like South Africa," where abortion is legal. Abortion in South Africa was legalised through the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which came into effect on 1 February 1997. The law allows termination of pregnancy on request through the 12th week of pregnancy, under specified circumstances from the 13th through the 20th weeks, and under very limited circumstances beyond that point.
In South Africa, implementation of the law on a national scale and in a rapid manner was said to "have saved many lives." According to IPAS, the legalising of abortion in South Africa had resulted in the reduction of abortion-related deaths by 90 percent, while the number of women seeking treatment due to unsafe abortion went down by 50 percent.
A number of African countries have undertaken abortion law reform in the past decade, although they have not introduced changes as sweeping as South Africa. Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Swaziland and Togo have all enacted additional conditions under which abortion is legal.
While Mozambique is currently considering liberalisation of its abortion law, other countries, including Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, have ongoing advocacy efforts to change laws. Ghana and Zambia have relatively liberal abortion laws that have not been fully implemented. But both countries have made new commitments to expand abortion services to the full extent of the current laws.
According to gender activists, there is no doubt that this legal reform in Mozambique is at least partly resulting from the increasing number of women in key decision-making positions, and a growing recognition of a women's rights and role in public society. Following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Mozambican government set out a long list of gender justice priorities including revision of the civil code and penal code - especially abortion, prostitution, pornography, violence and rape.
This also included ratification of United Nations conventions that protect women; halting the traffic of human beings and sexual exploitation; and promotion of more women in the police force. Mozambique established a Legal Reform Commission in 1997 with two gender-related sub-commissions. ON top of this, Mozambique has the highest percentage of women in a Southern African parliament.
"This is not to say that Mozambique does not have far way to go when it comes to gender equality," activists say. "However, there is no doubt that women in parliaments and at decision-making levels helps to ensure that women's' voices are heard on many issues, including reproductive health."
By Fred Katerere. Mr Katerere is a freelance journalist working in Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa.
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