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Autonomy and Abortion: Demanding full control of our bodies and our lives on the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion

On this Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, The Coalition of African Lesbians calls on African States, leaders, influencers of policy and legislation, as well as gatekeepers of culture and tradition to consider the realities at hand. The silence, stigma and taboo associated with procuring and providing abortions remain a great impediment to the realisation of comprehensive sexual reproductive and health rights for women in Africa. These manifest in the absence of up-to-date information and statistics on abortion as well as limited and often biased forms of research into the realities of women and girls in need of abortion services. There is a growing lack of political will of many policy makers, leaders and influential figures in demanding that not only legal provisions for women to access abortion are made available; but also that deliberate and stigma-free consciousness raising is done in institutions tasked with this work.

Africa remains the greatest contributor to deaths resulting from unsafe and illegal abortions in the world and in a political space where more regional structures such as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) publicly acknowledge the need for States to make abortion accessible, available and affordable for women. Health care providers in countries with progressive abortion legislation also experience this barrier to access. Often, they work without proper and adequate information and understanding of the legal and psycho-social impact of unwanted pregnancies.

Countries like South Africa experience the occurrence of unsafe abortions, despite a law in place that allows women to access and receive abortion services in State run medical care facilities. This shows a gap between legal frameworks and the lived realities of women, where  taboo and stigma associated with abortion remain present, consequently contributing to more preventable deaths and obstetric violence. This gap has also created the space for groups and political parties such as the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) to threaten these legal protections by seeking to introduce an amendment to the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (COPTA) in South Africa which aims to allow healthcare providers to ‘conscientiously object’ to performing an abortion.

The Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), in solidarity with numerous other organisations in Africa and in the world, continue to do the work of demanding autonomy for women’s bodies. The right to choose when and how a woman carries a pregnancy to term or not is one that is denied to many women and girls. Young women and girls in countries such as Kenya, are forced to carry unwanted and high risk pregnancies to term by a legislation that has no regard for their lives.

Providers and procurers of abortion services face great social and legal backlash and attacks, with very little, if any, protection from law enforcement or police structures. The Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA) have consistently demanded that the Government of Kenya make legal provision for abortions, in a country with nearly 120 000 women seeking unsafe abortions annually. A report by the African Population and Health Research Centre done in 2015 indicated that in Kenya alone, up to 400 000 women receive abortion services annually. Justice is slow and non-existent in many cases, for women experiencing the double injustice of being prosecuted for seeking abortions, as well as undergoing horrific, and often life threatening procedures. Despite local attempts at ensuring that abortions are safe and accessible to women, global geopolitical influences, such as the application of the Helms Amendment in Kenya, create more hurdles for both civil society and state structures attempting to instate systems and processes that give women access to  abortion related information and services. The Helms Amendment, which in 2013 halted the use of USAID monies to publicise, distribute and implement abortion related Standards and Guidelines as required by the Constitution of Kenya, was in 2017 further reinforced with the introduction of the Global Gag Rule. This rule extends its restrictions to all recipients of USAID funds working on sexual reproductive health and rights.

The right to abortion is a cornerstone demand of women all over the world, a key need, especially for majority world women who remain in the margins of policy and legislative measures that are supposed to offer access to healthcare that guarantees the holistic wellbeing of women. Women’s ability to control our bodies and consequently our sexuality and related choices, allows women to contribute fully to our communities and countries, free of fear and intimidation. Gross inequality of access to resources, be they financial, environmental or social, leaves women vulnerable to circumstances that deny them full agency and autonomy over their bodies and lives. Guaranteeing safe, accessible and stigma-free access to abortion will go a long way in granting women our demand to choose when and if to carry a pregnancy to term.

On this September 28, Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, we call on decision-makers, politicians and health service providers in Africa to take meaningful steps to guarantee access to safe and legal abortion in their countries and in the continent. We call on all organisations, collectives, communities of people, individuals and activists to show solidarity with women who seek and need abortions, as well as organisations, medical practitioners and individuals offering these services. We call on the Global North to lobby and push for the withdrawal of the Global Gag Rule. We ask African States and their leaders to invest time, skills and resources into research that will help shift conservative positions when it comes to confronting the violence women face under restrictive abortion legislation.

We continue our demand for the respect of the full autonomy of our bodies and lives, an autonomy that requires us to be able to choose how we live these lives, and full control over our reproductive abilities and desires.

On this day, the Coalition will be hosting a Webinar, that explores the role of autonomy in strengthening the call for access to safe and legal abortion in Africa. The webinar will involve a conversation between activists from Africa. Join us for this important conversation by logging in on GoToMeeting with the credentials on the link.

You can also follow the conversation via our social media channels on Facebook and on Twitter.

Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL)

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