Women in peril: My body, no choice

Despite the law enshrining access to safe abortions, women are constantly turned away from clinics, stigmatised or interrogated about their choices – and left to raise children they don’t want.

“We encounter problems when we go to the hospitals and clinics to do abortions,” says Matshidiso Dladla, a mother of twins. She leans against a tree and adjusts her beige hat. Dladla came to Johannesburg from her home in Vosloorus on Friday to take part in a march for safe abortions. “In Vosloorus, we have only one clinic that does abortions. Actually, for the whole of Ekurhuleni, people from Daveyton and Tembisa, they’re supposed to go to [one clinic] for them to do abortions,” she says.

The My Body My Choice campaign, with other civil rights organisations, brought people together to call for accessible and safe abortions, and spread the word that no woman or girl in South Africa should have to settle for a risky abortion.

Dladla says her cousin, who already had a child, went to a hospital for an abortion and was denied an abortion on the basis that she had given birth by C-section. “They said she must go to a doctor. Do you understand how expensive a doctor is? She was supposed to go to Free State to do that, and she doesn’t work.”

28 September 2018: Demonstrators resting at Theatre Park in Braamfontein.

The choice to terminate a pregnancy was legalised in South Africa in 1996, by the Termination of Pregnancy Act. The law was later amended in 2008 to permit trained medical practitioners to perform abortions, and to allow the prosecution of those who perform illegal abortions.

Sibongile Hlatshwayo brought her four-year-old son, Oratile, to the march. “I came with Oratile because when I fell pregnant it was because it was the right time to do so, and that is why I did not abort him. His name symbolises the love I had to have him,” she says.

Hlatshwayo made the choice to keep her child, and thinks other women should also be able to make their own choices. “You find that a woman wants to abort, [but] when she goes to the clinic or hospital, they refuse to assist her … There are other women who are raped, and others are pressured by their peers [to have sex]. They shouldn’t be [questioned]. When a woman wants to abort, it is her right,” she says.

“Whenever a woman decides to [have an] abortion … which is recognised by the law, it’s her right,” says Maurice Okungu, a director at African Initiative at Law and Associates. “She cannot be forced to do so, [and] she cannot be frustrated. [These are] human rights violations.”

Okungu adds that sometimes women who are not from South Africa are not helped at hospitals or clinics. “Some Congolese and Nigerians have already told me some of the issues like that,” he says. 

28 September 2018: Demonstrators on de Korte street in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Sibongile Tshabalala, national chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, says women lack access to safe pregnancy termination. “Here in Gauteng, we have just learned that there are only five clinics where you can access safe abortions. We also know that in the current month, we have a shortage of contraceptives. Then what choice are we giving women?” she asks.

Tshabalala says most women opt for illegal abortions because when they go to the nearest clinic, they are told the sister or nurse who is permitted to perform the termination is not around.

In Tembisa, Tshabalala and her team went to a hospital where they were informed that most women arrive with incomplete terminations. “They tried to help a woman, [but] unfortunately they lost [her],” she recounts. “It was so late. The womb was already damaged. They are not sure what that woman used to terminate that pregnancy.”

“We are dying as women because we are raising these children that we don’t want,” Tshabalala says. “Most of the time, we get these children because of rape, or we were in an abusive relationship. Recently a study was conducted that showed that 60% of children are raised by single mothers. What does that mean? It is time [to] talk about sex, [and] about safe abortions, because if we don’t, we continue to stigmatise it. We [are] going to lose more women, especially young [ones].”

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