Gathering the troops to improve access to safe abortion for young women in Eastern Africa

Reproductive health organizations from Eastern Africa are discussing challenges and ways to improve access to safe abortion in the region. At safe2choose, we could not miss the opportunity to working collaboratively towards connecting more and more women to accurate information and safe procedures. In order to fully achieve this, a lot has to happen behind the scenes. Organizations from all over the world need to join forces and cooperate on the subject in order to have a more powerful impact.

On October 5th, part of the safe2choose team flew to Nairobi, Kenya, to lead a round table event along with one of our global partners, HowToUseAbortionPill. Major stakeholders from the East African region – including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique – joined the conversation “Young Women and Safe Abortion: Synchronizing Strategies across East Africa” and restated their commitment to the cause of women’s rights in the region. 

Pushing boundaries on safe abortion’s discussions

It was a great shift moving away from a conversation that many times revolves around convincing people about the necessity of safe abortion, to rather sharing our different experiences and brainstorming on how to address the regional challenges. Everyone in the room came from very different backgrounds, but somehow, everyone could relate to the similar struggles women are facing all around Africa – and probably most of the world.

Among the guests, were outstanding references on the sexual and reproductive health field, such as Marie Stopes Kenya, FEMNETKisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET), Fortress of Hope Africa (FOHA), KELIN, IPAS, Trust for Indigenous Culture & Health (TICAH), SRHR Africa Trust (SAT), HIVOS East Africa.

When talking about improving access to safe abortion, the very first question that was raised was obviously on how to navigate around the law.

“People are making laws, but these laws are not really in consultation with what women want themselves. How do you make sure that every woman is represented in that conversation and how do you approach this issue without falling into the dichotomy of “pro-choice” or “pro-life”?”, questioned one of our partners.

An emblematic example is the Kenyan decision of making post-abortion care (PAC) free to all women, while nevertheless keeping abortion illegal in most cases. It is a recurrent scenario throughout Africa, where women are pushed to seek unsafe providers – or quacks, as they are called in Kenya – and left with severe health complications, which in the end only add stress to an already overused hospital system.

Advocacy and legal organizations also brought up the fundamental need to collect more data and involve governments in such issues to properly address the reality. Indeed, governments still have a long way to go in order to adapt their national laws to international treaties they have already signed, such as the Maputo Protocols

But the change can also come from another side. Grassroots organizations and the civil society can make a difference by universally spreading the right information about current medical procedures available and also informing citizens about their rights. How can women demand and access their own rights if they are not even aware that they exist? 

We all agreed that working on decreasing stigmas around abortion must be a priority. “Pregnancy is not a disease. A woman who is pregnant is viewed in a very funny way. Whenever she decides to choose over her body it becomes a topic. Why is that? Women should be given that opportunity of terminating a pregnancy safely, without being submitted to that suffering”, said one of the participants from a grassroots organization.

“Women that come to us are mostly very young, they’re not even out of school. When you’re giving birth, you’re treated like any other adult woman. Why should it be different when you’re having an abortion?”, pointed out the community leader.

Covering safe abortion in the Kenyan media

Even if the Kenyan’s constitution allows abortion in certain cases, the subject is still legally and culturally very sensitive. However, the increase in the number of reported cases of unsafe abortions and statistics published are attracting the interest of many journalists that wish to bring the light upon reproductive health issues in general as well as abortion. 

Some forward-thinking media, such as The Standard Group, participated in the press conference. As a result, our partners were invited to a special edition of the Bottom Line Africa talk show hosted by KTN News, on reproductive health in Africa. You can watch it here. We hope that this is only the beginning of more media coverage on the subject in Africa.

Next steps to reduce unsafe abortions in East Africa

All participants, regardless of their nationalities, were moved by the very same driving force: reducing unsafe abortions in East Africa. In the end, we left the meeting with a clear understanding of the next steps to follow in our different areas of work. 

“It was a very important meeting for me, where I could learn about other strategies and take some tips for us to apply in Congo”, said one of our partners from DRC.

“I could learn from people who are from Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and it was inspiring to see that, despite the challenges, people are still out there, speaking their minds and providing access to information. And if we can prevent any woman’s death, it’s already a big gain for the entire continent”, she reiterated.

One of the discussions outcomes is a collective campaign to fight abortion stigma, to be launched during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence international mobilization. It will start on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and will include both online and offline activities. If you or your organization would like to participate, contact us!  

Everyone’s personal boundaries were pushed last week to come up with new ways and strategies to make the world a safer place for all women. We couldn’t be more grateful for having such great minds and hearts by our side.

by Pauline Diaz