The state of abortion provision in Zambia

By Lucy Masiye, World Young Women’s Christian Association Vice President

A discussion needs to be opened about the laws on access to safe abortion in Zambia. The majority of people who experience unsafe abortions due to the various factors mentioned in this article are young.

According to some reports in the public domain, abortion is among the top five causes of maternal deaths in Zambia and yet legal abortions are available. Therefore, one is bound to ask what the legal shortcomings are.

Legal abortion in Zambia is supported by two principal laws. The first is the Penal Code (chapter 87, sections 151 and 152), which prohibits a woman from undergoing an abortion without the authority of the law. The code further prohibits any other person from assisting in performing an abortion outside the law. In section 152(2) (2005 amendment), the code allows abortion for girls under 16 years of age who were “defiled”. The second piece of legislation is the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1972, which provides for safe legal abortions.

Zambia is a signatory to various conventions and protocols that include sexual reproductive health rights and gender equality for all. For example, Zambia has ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). Article 14(2)(c) of the Protocol calls on States Parties to take all measures to: “Protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or life of the mother or foetus”.

Unsafe abortion is a big challenge in Zambia – among young women in both rural and urban areas, including students. Doctors continue to attend to cases of incomplete abortions brought in from communities after failed unsafe abortions.

I have been privileged to interact with women and girls of different age groups and backgrounds under the banner of Zambia’s Young Women’s Christian Association ‘Safe Space’ programme. This is a space where girls freely share their experiences related to their gender or age. The primary topics that we have discussed with them are all related to abortion. The girls spoke about some of the factors that lead to unsafe abortions in their communities:

  • The mention of the word “abortion” leads to them being stigmatised, judged and labeled as a prostitute or a criminal. A girl or woman known to have aborted may even be ostracised by the community.
  • Information on abortion is not easily available. There is a big disparity between rural and urban girls in terms of their knowledge of the law on safe abortion. The majority of urban girls are aware of the law but believe it is only for other categories of women, while rural girls are largely ignorant of abortion legislation.
  • There is a fear of early reporting of pregnancy – even when it is a case of rape. One of the girls who shared her story said that she was “defiled” and went to seek abortion when her pregnancy was at seven months. The doctor refused to perform the abortion procedure due to the risk that comes with advanced pregnancy.

In my opinion, these challenges may be attributed to the legal processes that are not user friendly to young women. Women go through extreme difficulties to obtain abortion services. For example, for a  young woman who seeks abortion she would have to  consult with doctors and obtain the approval of three physicians before an abortion is performed. A legal abortion can only be conducted by trained and skilled medical providers on the signing of consent forms and proof of any one of the following conditions:

  • Risk to the life of the pregnant woman
  • Risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
  • Risk of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of the pregnant woman
  • If the unborn child would suffer from serious physical or mental abnormalities
  • Other considerations such as age and rape or defilement cases.

It is challenging for a woman to contemplate abortion because it means that she has must consult so many people about her situation. My assessment indicates that in Zambia the issue of abortion is not only a personal one, but also a legal, moral and political matter. It is a legal issue because the law governs abortions, a moral one because Zambia is a staunch Christian nation with strict cultural and traditional norms, and political because it is parliament that passes new laws. 

The implementation of the Global Gag Rule has added to the existing barriers to abortion in our country. A case in point is the Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia (PPAZ). Among non-governmental organisations in Zambia, PPAZ was the main organisation that provided comprehensive sexual reproductive health services. According to reliable reports, PPAZ has been forced to lay off a substantial number of employees and abruptly end some of its community-based activities. The impact of the Global Gag Rule is further evident from an increase in the number of unsafe abortions as a result of women’s inability to access contraceptives and other sexual reproductive health support systems.

In Zambia, the conditions of the law that legalise abortion remain a challenge. Rural women and girls face obstacles in exercising their rights to abortion due to the stipulations of the Termination of Pregnancy Act. Gender inequality is still a challenge in the traditional settings where women and girls have little say over their own reproductive health affairs. For justice to prevail, women need to stand up and speak out, change the rules and unlock resources.