A High Court judge in the deeply conservative kingdom of Swaziland (eSwatini) has started a debate about legalising abortion.
Judge Qinisile Mabuza heard a case involving a 26-year-old woman who was accused of causing the death of her four-year-old son, by drowning him in a river.
The eSwatini Observer reported that the child’s father had denied paternity, leaving her to rise the child herself. This prompted the judge to question what provisions were available for women who found themselves in similar situations.
The Swazi Constitution provides that
abortion might be allowed on medical or therapeutic grounds, including where a
doctor certifies that continued pregnancy will endanger the life or constitute
a serious threat to the physical health of the woman; continued pregnancy will
constitute a serious threat to the mental health of the woman; there is serious
risk that the child will suffer from physical or mental defect of such a nature
that the child will be irreparably seriously handicapped.
However, no law exists to put the constitutional provisions into effect.
According to the Observer, ‘In her subsequent remarks, she [Judge Mabuza] hinted that she viewed the current situation as shackling women’s autonomy, making an undertaking to tackle the current ban on abortion before she retires from the bench.
‘In fact, the learned judge believes it would be reasonable to allow women to make a decision on whether to perform an abortion.’
The Observer reported, she added some of the rights of women had been addressed through the 2018 Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act and it was time that society explored the possibility of legalising abortion as well.
Later, a number of representatives from organisations within Swaziland supported the idea of a debate. Acting Director Bongani Msibi of the Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS), a leader in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights delivery and youth programming in Swaziland, said the illegality of abortion often posed serious risks to women, and that legalisation could help to protect their reproductive and health rights.
Acting Director Zanele Thabede of Women and the Law of Southern Africa (WLSA) said abortion law reform should be discussed. She told the Observer it was important to have meaningful conversations whatever your beliefs about abortion.
Head of the Human Rights and Integrity Commission Sabelo Masuku said the group was in support of the call by the judge to have Swaziland revisit its position on abortion.
Because abortions are illegal in Swaziland it is difficult to say accurately how many are performed in the kingdom. However, in August 2018 the Times of Swaziland reported that every month, nurses at the Raleigh Fitkin Memorial (RFM) Hospital in Manzini attended more than 100 cases of young women who had committed illegal abortions.
The IRIN news agency, quoting FLAS reported that in October 2012 more than 1,000 women were treated for abortion-related complications at a single clinic in Swaziland.
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