The tragic cost of abortion in Zimbabwe

Joyce (not her real name) is a mother of two from Seke in Chitungwiza. She decided to terminate her pregnancy at three weeks because the family simply couldn’t afford another child.

“The thought of having another child after my husband had just lost his job was a non-starter,” said Joyce. “An unplanned pregnancy is a recipe for disaster.

“When I realised that I was pregnant and told my husband, he shouted at me that I was complicating his already complicated life,” she said.

After consultations with the traditional ‘gynaecologist’, Joyce was given a magic concoction at a very low cost.

“Consultations with the medical doctors hit a snag after they all refused to perform the abortion, arguing that it was illegal in Zimbabwe and the costs were too expensive,” said Joyce. “The traditional midwives were my last resort. One nyamukuta charged me $50 and I could even pay gradually.” The abortion went badly, however. Joyce failed to raise the money to pay off the midwife, her health deteriorated and her husband left.

“My children suffered because I fell ill. I could no longer fend for them,” she said. “I badly needed medical attention which I could not afford.”

Joyce sold her clothes and the few household possessions.

“The infection I contracted because of the abortion cleared after a series of antibiotics followed by a theatre procedure, and I was lucky that the doctor who treated me was discreet,” she said.

Since abortion in Zimbabwe is illegal, a hospital or doctor that treats a woman for abortion-related complications is obliged to report the matter to the police. Both the woman and the person who performed the procedure risk arrest and a sentence of five years in prison.

Joyce is not alone, but she is one of the lucky ones. A report compiled by 27 NGOs in Zimbabwe revealed that more than 20,000 women die reach year because of unsafe abortions. The health ministry states that more than 100,000 illegal abortions were recorded in the past few years.

The director of family health in the health and child care ministry, Bernard Madzima, said: “Women who abort in Zimbabwe are at risk of complications like infections, bleeding, perforation of the uterus, infertility and chronic abdominal pains among a host of other problems.”

Madzima said women risked imprisonment, stigma and discrimination because abortion was “culturally and religiously unacceptable”.

Precious (not her real name) is the mother of a teenager who terminated a pregnancy so that she could continue her studies.

“The girl was still young and the burden of raising that child rested on us. It was better to part with $500 than bear the financial burden of raising a grandchild whose father even the mother had failed to identify,” she said.

A woman who lost a niece due to abortion-related complications said women who aborted were viewed as social outcasts.

“My niece used to go to church but church members refused to attend her funeral,” she said.

Women’s Trust director Memory Kachambwa said it was important that women and girls be empowered financially so they could make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health rights.

“Contraception should be readily available for women and girls,” said Kachambwa, adding that availability was not the only challenge; accessibility was also needed.

“Access to education on health should be a priority for the government to avoid transactional sex especially among young women and girls, the majority of whom end up in difficult circumstances such as unwanted pregnancies,” she said.

Madzima said although the ministry acted in accordance with the law, which deems abortion illegal, the health ministry provided family planning services to ensure a reduction in unwanted pregnancies.

Said Madzima: “The ministry of health provides post abortion care for women that abort. Family planning services are provided to ensure that no unintended pregnancies occur.”

In neighbouring South Africa, the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act was changed in 1997, providing abortion on demand to any woman, as long as the pregnancy was less than 20 weeks.

In Zimbabwe, abortion is still illegal regardless of the fact that the practice is common.

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