Monday, April 1, 2019

Death of Swaziland schoolgirl after illegal abortion highlights suffering of women in kingdom

The tragic story of the death of a schoolgirl in Swaziland /eSwatini after she had an illegal abortion highlights the way women suffer because of the law in the kingdom.

The Sunday edition of the Swazi Observer reported (31 March 2019) that the girl (it did not name her or publish her age) was given a conconction supplied by a traditional healer. She later died.

The Observer reported, ‘After the abortion, the weak girl is said to have been locked in the one-room flat within the homestead for three days and her body was later found dumped in the nearby forest.’ The police found the foetus at another bush.

The newspaper reported a 22-year-old man, described as the girl’s boyfriend, had been charged with her murder because he gave her the concoction to induce 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 the Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS), a family planning organization, reported that in October 2012 more than 1,000 women were treated for abortion-related complications at a single clinic in Swaziland. Many of the deaths were the result of haemorrhaging, while others resulted from the patient’s delay in seeking medical treatment for other complications stemming from illegal terminations.

In November 2012 the IRIN news agency reported that 16 percent of all women deaths in the government hospital in Mbabane that year were the result of botched abortions. It said that this figure was only those cases that were reported, there were certainly other deaths unreported.

In December 2018 the Swazi Observer reported the number of illegal ‘backstreet’ abortions taking place in Swaziland was ‘escalating’ because social media had made it easier to obtain abortion pills.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, abortion is prohibited in Swaziland except in cases of necessity but there is disagreement about what constitutes a case of necessity. 

‘The majority position of commentators is that a case of necessity exists only when an abortion is performed to save the life of the pregnant woman.  However, it is possible that a case of necessity need not be so serious and that an abortion could be performed in cases of serious threat to both physical and mental health, foetal defect and rape. There is no case law on this issue in Swaziland,’ the report stated.

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.

The UN report stated there were no legal provisions dealing with the professional qualifications required to perform an abortion, the place where the procedure must be performed or the period during pregnancy when an abortion can be performed. 

The UN stated, ‘Induced abortion is a particularly significant problem among teenage girls.  Faced with the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy, many teenage girls resort to abortion to avoid expulsion from school. Unmarried teenage women are more likely to have unwanted pregnancies because of the barriers they face in obtaining contraceptives. For example, it is reported that health workers often require proof of the husband’s authorization before dispersing contraceptives, even though this is not a legal requirement.’

IRIN reported that in 2011 three Swazi nurses were arrested and given 15 years jail for assisting in terminations. 

‘They were helping the poorest of the poor, women who are truly desperate and who cannot do what most Swazi women do who need an abortion. Most women just travel across the border to South Africa,’ Alicia Simelane, a Manzini healthcare worker and midwife, told IRIN. 

‘Also, there are the scared little girls, the rape survivors and the survivors of incest who dare not talk about their experiences to anyone. Counselling hardly exists for such girls in Swaziland. Then there are the women who have seven children and a husband who refuses to wear a condom, and they cannot bear to have more children. These are desperate women, and they will go to anyone who they think will help them,’ she said. 

In the absence of legal abortions, mothers are suspected of practising infanticide. Local media reports of new-borns found dead in isolated areas are commonplace. 

In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva recommended that Swaziland adopt laws allowing voluntary abortions.

 Richard Rooney

See also

abortion, united nations,

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