Beyond Morality

Mamelo Makhele

Lesotho provides post-abortion care and yet abortion is only legal in cases of rape or incest, as stated in the Maputo Plan of Action. This situation has resulted in many women resorting to backstreet abortions, which can lead to infertility and maternal deaths. Our country made a commitment during the International Conference on Population and development conference to achieve zero maternal deathsbut discounts abortion as one of the major contributing factors to maternal deaths. Until our policymakers realise abortion should be a choice, their efforts to stop deaths will be futile.

Cultural Context

Culture in Lesotho is a factor that has impinged on women’s rights. Many girls are forced into early marriage by their parents to escape poverty. They often get married to older men in the community and are unable to negotiate safe sex in these arrangements. Failure to satisfy their partners frequently leads to physical assault. Women are taught to be submissive, irrespective of whether the marriage is toxic and damaging. In fact, the more resistant a woman is to pain, the stronger she is seen to be. In society, our female bodies are either objectified or regarded as a crime scene, our opinions are deemed irrational and our voices are only a means to communicate. In these situations, no one cares about the psychological state of a pregnant girl or woman, or whether she will carry the foetus to term.

Case Study

In one case, the girl was a 14-year-old orphan living with her uncle and aunt. Her uncle raped her countless times and he repeatedly threatened her saying: “Report me, I dare you.”

He would add in a threatening tone: “I pay for your fees, I feed you. If you report me, it will be the end of the journey for you.”

The young girl felt worthless and became depressed. When she discovered she was pregnant, she went to a place called Shady Shack in town to have an abortion. There, a grey-haired man who appeared to take pleasure in inserting two pills in her vagina “assisted her”. To her horror, this did not end her pregnancy, so she had to return to the shack and have three more pills inserted in her body. This time the man raped her, asserting that he is opening up her cervix in order for the pills to work. On her return home, she started bleeding heavily. She was rushed to hospital in a deathly pale condition and due to complications during the incomplete termination, her uterus was removed. So by the tender age of 14, she had been raped by a relative, was infertile, and had tested HIV positive.

Religious Context

One of the biggest influences on Lesotho’s policy on abortion is religion, in particular, the Catholic Church. The church has taken the stance of the absolute prohibition of abortion in certain circumstances. Furthermore, the narrative that Lesotho is a Christian country has made our policymakers reluctant to decriminalise abortion. The majority of our health facilities belong to the church, which makes it almost impossible for people living in certain areas to have access to family-planning services. When a woman has had an illicit abortion, she is generally considered to have committed a mortal sin. She and her family members are refused entry into the church until they have paid a fine or completed a waiting period.

Our society has been shaped in a way that allows gender bias to prevail in leadership positions. Women are denied the opportunity to lead, whether it is in a household setting, or on a community or national level. In fact, the representation of women in any decision- making roles would be considered a poor reflection on men.

Legalised abortion will remain unlikely if we only appoint men in leadership positions as they are the people who were raised in toxic settings, who diminish the worth of girls and describe women as irrational. Women’s lives matter. We need women to occupy public roles, to lead, to use their voices to challenge the status quo and use their strength to implement progressive policies on safe abortion. Women should have the legal right to decide for themselves if they want to have an abortion. Abortion is a choice and should be treated as such.