When Thando Mnkandla, 16, from St Peters village fell pregnant, she secretly aborted and dumped her foetus at St Peter’s Primary School toilets, risking her life as well as a five-year jail term.
It is understood that Thando’s ordeal came to light after a pupil discovered the foetus, wrapped in clothes, in one of the toilets.
When word about the dumped foetus spread, a resident who had seen Thando very early in the morning going to the school clad in blood-stained clothes and a satchel on her back alerted other residents that she suspected Thando had aborted her baby. Residents thronged the homestead where Thando resides and hurled insults at her.
‘‘I was frightened to see residents thronging my compound demanding that Thando should be punished for aborting a foetus. They were very angry and uttering all sorts of insults. When she came out of the house, they flogged her. I didn’t know what to do, I was so shocked and I’m still shocked that she killed a foetus,” said Thando’s landlord who only identified herself as MaMoyo.
The matter was reported to the police and Thando was arrested.
Thando is hardly an isolated statistic. According to a report by the UN Children’s Fund, Unicef, more than 70 000 illegal abortions are carried out in the country every year, with Zimbabwean women running a 200 times greater risk of dying of abortion complications than their counterparts in South Africa, where the procedure is legal.
Pregnant teenagers like Thando, who are not ready to be mothers, account for almost one in three of the country’s abortion- related maternal deaths as they opt for termination.
“Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate stands at 443 deaths per 100 000 live births,” states an official report adding that illegal abortions contribute 16% of maternal deaths in the country.
Furthermore, a cross sectional study in the BMJ Open Access Journal (2018), approximates that maternal mortality attributable to abortion impediments in Zimbabwe ranges from six percent to 23 percent.
The study also noted that deaths and injuries due to unsafe abortion disproportionately affect women who are young, poor and lack education.
Abortion has been a contentious issue in Zimbabwe and the world over, with governments and civil society organisations clashing on numerous platforms over the morality, acceptability and legality of the practice.
A largely Christian society, abortion in Zimbabwe is condemned by both the church and the state. “As a Christian, there’s no grey area: abortion is murder,” said a local priest who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The foetus, from conception, has a life, a soul, and we, as human beings, have no right to kill it.”
Similar to Christianity neither does the law allow for any ambiguity. The termination of a pregnancy, according to the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 [Chapter 15:10] is a criminal act, and is dealt with as such.
The law only permits abortion under three circumstances: if the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman or threatens to permanently impair her physical health, if the child may be born with serious physical or mental defects, or if the foetus was conceived as a result of rape or incest. However, calls to amend Zimbabwe’s 1977 abortion law are mounting amid growing awareness of the large number of teenage girls dying from backstreet abortions.
Lucy Tatenda Chipunza, a gender expert, said after touring the country to collect teenagers’ views on abortion most of them were not ready to be mothers. “We have had a lot of conversations with these teenagers and most of them are not ready to be mothers,” she said. “But there is no option, so they end up going to illegal abortions and mess up their lives forever.”
Health workers say illegal abortions are easily available for those who can pay up to US$500 in private clinics, as well as being advertised online.
“It makes sense to me to terminate the pregnancy of a 14- or 15-year-old. Is that child ready to have a child?” asked a doctor in Bulawayo who declined to give his name as he has performed illegal abortions.
Although the law allows for abortion in cases such as rape, it is difficult for women and girls to receive the service in government facilities. If a pregnancy results from rape or incest, the law requires a magistrate to certify that the crime was reported to the police before allowing a woman to abort. In reality, police have to investigate the case and take it to court.
“I am concerned about the practical difficulty which often makes it impossible to access termination on legal grounds, especially for low-income victims,” said Jessie Majome, a lawyer and former female parliamentarian who favours legal reform.
“A comprehensive evaluation of the Termination of Pregnancy Act is required in order to save lives,” she added.
The problem, explains a human rights defender, Lisa Chizirika who specialises in women’s issues, is that women aren’t speaking up.
“Traditionally, in Zimbabwe, women have not been called on to voice their opinions, so the concept of saying what they want is foreign to them,” she said.
“Human rights organisations will advocate for women’s issues, such as the legalisation of abortion, and the government will say, let’s ask the women what they want.
And, of course, no one will say a word.”
She said the issue hinged on a three-pronged dilemma: morals, human rights and societal norms. Few women were going to be brave enough to stand up and be the isolated voice that went against the moral and societal foundations on which the country had been established.
“It would be suicide. Instead, they choose to stay silent and then risk a back-street abortion.” Her viewpoint is backed by a survey on the constitution, once carried out by an advocacy group.
The results showed a very small majority of those interviewed (40 percent) in favour of the constitution preserving full rights for women to have an abortion, while a few less (39 percent) believed it should be preserved only in certain instances, which must be clearly stated by law. Only 19 percent, however, were completely opposed to the constitution preserving any rights for a woman to have an abortion.
Chizirika strongly believes a paradigm shift is needed in the regulation of abortion from the model of crime and punishment to a more reproductive health model which offers women an exclusive right of autonomy regarding their bodies.
She added that there was a need for a roadmap on making safe and legal abortion part of the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health service provision in line with Article 14 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which provides for the rights to control one’s fertility and the right to decide whether to have children or not.