Abortions in Botswana: A battleground for culture vs modernity

Context of the Abortions in Botswana

By Marie-Simone Kadurira

Nestled in the middle of Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, lies the country of Botswana, a country characterized by the nomadic history of its people and rapid development thereafter. A former protectorate of British Rule, the country adopted similar legislative practices as its southern African counterparts, including the Termination of Pregnancy Act.

Is abortion legal in Botswana?

Within its borders, abortion is permitted under three distinct conditions:

1. The first is if the abortion will save the life of the mother
2. The second if the pregnancy causes significant challenges to a woman’s mental or physical health
3. The third is when the pregnancy is the cause of rape or incest [1].

The existing laws assume an almost cut and dry dichotomy amongst women in the country whereby their desire to terminate a pregnancy falls within these conditions, but the situation on the ground reflects a very different story.

Given its colonial history as well as some pre-colonial practices that placed women in a position of subordination, the nature of this law comes as no surprise. It has been noted that prior to colonization, there were numerous practices in Batswana culture that emphasized women’s second-class status. These include the language around the gods within communities that often had male characteristics, alongside specifically ostracised places where women were allowed to sit during major cultural happenings [2].

Following colonization, much of the religious dogma brought by Europeans transplanted onto this existing culture, further placing women on the outskirts of the community with expectations of them to remain pure and in turn, enjoy limited reproductive freedoms. This is where we can begin to understand the rigid abortion laws in the country and their preservation which makes for a complicated and restrictive life for women. However, the rapidly developing state of Botswana and its rapid modernization has only further juxtaposed women’s progression with the reproductive freedoms they are afforded.

Botswana boasts immense development within its borders

The relative size of Botswana in comparison to its rate of development has been a topic of conversation for the past few years. With economic growth of 5% per annum, the country has been characterized as one of the fastest growing economies [3]. The rapid development has meant that more jobs, although often menial, have opened up for women, and more and more households are kept afloat through the financial contributions of women.

One would thus assume that the reproductive agency of women would become more respected, given their rising role in economic activities, but this is unfortunately not the case. Women instead have become a symbol of culture and its preservation, which has meant increasing pressure on them to uphold age-old cultural values which often include limited access to reproductive health such as abortion services. General resistance to a threat on culture brought about by rapid development has meant women are further subjugated as it is believed that in doing so, culture in some shape or form, is preserved. This brings about many complications for women as they often live double lives, with a constant connection to their rural homes where they are expected to perform this archaic notion of womanhood while working predominantly in a rapidly developing economy.

The reluctance to adopt development across the board heavily impacts women

This reluctance towards uplifting the position of women has far-reaching consequences for their reproductive freedoms. A study conducted in Botswana revealed that many women give up careers and economic opportunities because of pregnancies they are not able to terminate through abortions [4]. Data on abortion rates in the country remain low and grossly underreported, however, the high incidence of second trimester “spontaneous abortions”, otherwise known as miscarriages points to a troubling picture in relation to women’s health. The likelihood of second- trimester miscarriages is very low and as such, researchers have noted that the high rate of these found in hospital settings is indicative of women inducing abortions at later stages in their pregnancy due to limited access to abortion pills and services [5].

Further exacerbating the adverse state of reproductive health for women in Botswana is the fact that when they do approach clinicians for post-abortion care following what is presented as a spontaneous abortion or an induced abortion legal under the three conditions, they are met with resistance and condemnation. Another study that looked into healthcare providers’ perceptions revealed that most do not agree with abortions upon request, and struggle to show empathy for the women who have undergone an abortion or are seeking post-abortion care.

All of this makes for a hostile environment for women and their reproductive freedoms. The reasons for seeking abortions are plentiful and should never be questioned by anyone but the individual seeking them, but in order to create space where this is a reality, reproductive freedoms and access to necessary information is crucial. As is the case in many African countries, such as the neighbors of Botswana, there is a long road ahead before actualizing comprehensive reproductive services such as abortion.

Platforms such as safe2choose however, can offer some respite by virtue of their online information that is shared across platforms. While people on the ground continue to advocate for reproductive freedoms, safe2choose serves as a means to sensitize women to the process of abortion, as well as offering counseling services that give way to support structures to those seeking abortions in this heavily regulated environment. To learn more about abortions in Botswana as well as the various services we offer here at safe2choose, visit the country profile on our website.

[1] Global Abortion Policies Database, World Health Organisation. Country Profile-Botswana. https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/country/botswana/. Accessed January 2022

[2] The experiences of women within Tswana cultural history and its implications for the history of the church in Botswana, Fidelis Nkomazana. https://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/4515/Nkomozana-SHEXXXIV_2_-December2008.pdf?sequence=1. Accessed January 2022

[3] Botswana Economic Development, African Development Bank. https://www.afdb.org/en/countries/southern-africa/botswana/botswana-economic-outlook. Accessed January 2022

[4] Reproductive Health and the Question of Abortion in Botswana: A Review, Stephanie S. Smith. https://www.ajrh.info/index.php/ajrh/article/view/1212/pdf. Accessed January 2022

[5] ‘I guess we have to treat them, but…’: Health care provider management of women presenting with unsafe abortion in Botswana, Karabo Ngwako and Aduragbemi Banke-Thomas. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/103709/4/Abortion_in_Botswana.pdf. Accessed January 2022