A knotty dilemma

Abortion remains an emotive issue in Zimbabwe like in other parts of the world

Abortion remains an emotive issue in Zimbabwe like in other parts of the world

Joram Nyathi Spectrum
IT was Tuesday, June 13, 2017. The Herald carried two unsettling stories on Page 2. One was bold, “MPs clash on abortion law”. The second story was an appeal to the Government, “Distribute condoms to prisoners”.

Chairwoman of parliament’s Health and Child Care portfolio committee Dr Ruth Labode told a workshop on HIV and Aids in Gweru recently; “We cannot continue denying these young women access to safe abortion, yet we know they will still proceed to abort whether it is allowed or not.”

The Ministry of Health and Child Care’s director for Family Health, Dr Bernard Madzima put it this way; “Countries like South Africa, Zambia and Kenya have legalised abortion and there has not been much difference in the numbers of abortions pre- and post- that law.” Both stories strike not only at the heart of the nation’s cultural and moral sensibilities, but also our Constitution.

Aids in prison

Zimbabwe is reported to have one of the highest Aids prevalence rates at 14 percent. Aids is reportedly more prevalent among prostitutes, long distance bus drivers and youths aged between 15 and 24.

Among the prison population, the AIDS prevalence rate is said to be as high as 27 percent. The inference is that there are same sex sexual activities taking place in prisons.

Stakeholders now believe the only way to bring relief to the prisoners is to distribute condoms. The trouble is that the issue is not about the Government just deciding to distribute condoms.

For a start, homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe. The Constitution prohibits same sex relationships, even among adults. Generally, it is something our society frowns upon. That is why the prohibition was widely endorsed during the constitutional outreach programmes conducted by COPAC ahead of the referendum in March 2013.

What the “distribute condoms” lobby is doing is to play some mischief. Either they are asking the Government to do what is illegal or to call for an amendment of the national Constitution to legalise homosexuality in Zimbabwe.

The latter option can be achieved through a Bill, in which case parliamentarians seek to subvert the broadly expressed will of the people in the 2013 referendum. To go the way of another referendum is to guarantee a defeat, given that most Zimbabweans profess to be Christians.

This is a sticky dilemma.

There is another conundrum.

Whether it’s an amendment or referendum, it does look like we are being urged to drift towards the gays and lesbians camps, to throw away the Bible and use a minority as our moral campus on what is right or wrong or what can be legal. Western lobby groups and governments must love the sound of this.

They have been trying to force African nations to legalise these immoralities as part of conditions for aid. This happened to Malawi recently. South Africa is a lost cause.

Ghana told Barack Obama to go to hell. He wouldn’t dare come to Zimbabwe with that one.

Question is, can Zimbabwe voluntarily legalise in prison what is illegal outside? A moral ambiguity?

Isn’t the whole point of imprisonment to punish by depriving the prisoner of certain rights, and to reform or rehabilitate the offender?

How does a nation amend a whole Constitution to allow a few prisoners to “enjoy conjugal rights” which are denied to law-abiding citizens outside?

What happens to those inmates who are not perverts? And what happens when such prisoners are released on to society?

We tell them what they did in prison is in fact illegal outside so they must change?

You can abort

Tough decisions will need to be made. Even harder ones around the issue of abortion, also illegal under Zimbabwean law. Strangely, the abortion lobby was almost silent on the matter of distributing condoms, focusing instead on healing the injured.

Zimbabwe allows abortion only in exceptional circumstances under the Termination of Pregnancy Act: where a woman has been raped, is a victim of incest, where the woman’s life is at risk because of the pregnancy or the foetus has little chance of survival.

A 2016 national adolescent fertility study reportedly reveals that 9 percent of adolescents aged between 10 and 19 years have fallen pregnant sometime in the past. A majority of them are said to be in rural areas. The immediate culprit is obviously poverty.

But that is not my point. That means outside these parameters, in a nation where condoms are often readily available, pregnancy can largely be ascribed to recklessness. And it does in fact appear that Dr Labode and Dr Madzima are talking from different ends of the spectrum.

Dr Labode argues that abortion should be legalised so that pregnant teenagers don’t go for backyard operations which often end in death. Studies show that 16 percent of maternal deaths in Zimbabwe are due to unsafe abortions, with adolescent girls accounting for half that figure.

National tragedy

Dr Madzima on the other hand suggests that legalising abortion has not changed statistics in South Africa, Kenya and Zambia, implying that teenagers and others still resort to backyard abortions even when it’s legalised, presumably because of prohibitive costs.

But the conundrum for Zimbabwe is more complex. Zimbabwe has set itself a target to end HIV by 2030.

Women recently won a court case which outlawed child marriage. But from the alarm being raised by Dr Labode, all these efforts could be in vain.

The target to end HIV by 2030 might be too optimistic: youths, most likely both boys and girls, are not using preventive measures such as condoms.

Besides cross-generational liaisons, which society is trying to fight by outlawing child marriages, there is a risk that the young people are transmitting HIV to each other.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t easily manifest among the boys because they don’t get pregnant and so don’t seek abortions, legal or otherwise. They therefore become deadly vectors while society fights over legalising abortion for girls. The chances are that the girl is not only pregnant, but HIV-positive as well.

Abortion merely attends to symptoms of a terrifying national tragedy. The children we are trying to protect from early marriage and unwanted pregnancies might not make it to adulthood.

Surveys from tertiary institutions and lower confirm the scale of the tragedy. If condoms are not working among the youth, abortion is far from offering salvation.

Tough as it might sound, that means as a nation we have to look back to basics to dream of a future.

Condoms are not our nation’s hope, nor are abortions.

It must be back to the old culture, the old morality; that we must turn to, difficult as it looks.

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  • Masaisai

    Strange that no one found anything to comment on such a pivotal life issue in our nation yet one finds heavy commentary on issues involving useless politics and other social rubbish. It simply demonstrates how shallow the minds of readership are when faced with true challenging situations. It’s very sad. Nevertheless let’s look at the issue at hand. Social scientists and experts debating the issue of teenage abortions, same sex and HIV transmission etc in prisons seem to overlook certain aspects. The majority of abortions happen in order to conceal an act of pregnancy from parents in the case of teenage girls. It looks like Dr. Labode thinks that by legalizing abortion, we then expect our teenage girl to approach parents for money to go and abort at the clinic next door. That will not happen. Legal or illegal the act of abortion will still be a secret and concealed activity hence in countries where abortion has been legalized stats show no change. Same sex in prisons is predominantly rape. Ask any male prisoner. Now when someone proposes to supply condoms in prison, what are we saying here? That’s rapists must be assisted to perpetrate such crimes in the confines of rehabilitation centres?