MARGARET CHISANGA, Katete
SOMETIMES social gatherings reveal the unexpected information as people share experiences occurring in their communities.
At a recent community sensitisation meeting in Kazala village in Katete, where a group of Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) students on a diploma course in community based work with children and youth were discussing dangers of early marriage and benefits of the education re-entry policy, a major issue that surfaced was the hidden secret of abortion within families.
“Even though they are aware of the re-entry policy, some parents prefer to conduct abortions with the help of traditional healers for fear of embarrassment to face the teachers and traditional leaders,” said Eliza Banda, an elderly member of the community.
Abortion is defined as the spontaneous or artificially induced expulsion of an embryo or foetus. As used in legal context, the term usually refers to induced abortion. In Zambia, the Termination of Pregnancy Act (TOP) of 1972 legalises abortion. The penal code, on the other hand, criminalises attempts at abortion outside the TOP Act.
According to Women on Waves, a legal abortion must be performed by a registered medical practitioner in a hospital. One of the three physicians consenting to an abortion must be a specialist in the branch of medicine in which the patient is specifically required to be examined.
However, according to Panos, a number of circumstances have resulted in an increase in the number of botched abortions.
“The country has a poor doctor patient ratio of 1:1400. The TOP Act says for an abortion to occur three doctors have to okay the procedure and in the rural areas where no doctors are found, this is impossible,” says Lillian Keifer, executive director of Panos.
Ms Keifer said it is therefore vital that sexual reproductive health challenges that women and girls in rural Zambia face and policy changes that need to be made to improve their access to SRH and maternal and child health services be discussed at length.
According to the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions account for 13 percent of maternal deaths while 95 percent of unsafe abortions occur in developing countries, including Zambia, as a result of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.
While the participants, during the Kazala Primary School community talk, included pupils from the ages of 13 to 18, some of the parents, including Mrs Banda joined.
During one-on-one interviews, some pupils revealed that they have friends who have had abortions with the help of their parents. None agree to having done it themselves.
In Sinda district, at Masuwe Primary school, headteacher, Maximina Banda said in an interview that six pupils had been registered pregnant last term, however, at the beginning of this term, only five of the girls were still pregnant.
“When we discover that one of our pupils is pregnant, we call the parents and ensure they understand the benefits of the re-entry policy. It is the mandate of every teacher to always be alert and report cases of teen pregnancy, abortion and defilement,” she said.
Mrs Banda said while most parents allow their children to continue with school, others opt to marry them off, or worse off force them to have abortions.
“In this particular case, after the girl confirmed that she is no longer pregnant, we summoned the parents, and officers from our district education board secretary will be in attendance at the meeting, so that we forge a way ahead,” she said.
Some Indunas (village headmen) are said to be in the know how about such acts, but prefer to keep quiet because they also want to have a good record that there are few cases of teen pregnancy in their villages.
Chiefteness Kawaza lamented that the secrecy surrounding abortion makes it very difficult to prosecute and urged all citizens to be vigilant.
Speaking after the inter-school debate on social effects of teenage pregnancies in schools held in Sinda, Chieftness Kawaza urged members of the community to be extra vigilant and report at her palace when they feel a particular Induna is allowing unsafe abortions to take place.
Sinda member of Parliament, Masautso Tembo said Government has placed education of the girl child as top priority.
“Government is against any cultural practice that hinders the girl child from enjoying all of her rights and so those found wanting will face the law,” he said.
According to Zambian law, a person who performs an abortion in violation of the provisions of the Act is subject to the penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment for a person who, with intent to procure a miscarriage, unlawfully administers a noxious thing or uses any means. A woman who undertakes the same act with respect to herself or consents to such an act is subject to seven years’ imprisonment.
And Sinda District Education Board Secretary Feston Mtonga said Sinda district recorded 2,229 pupil dropouts since 2004 up to the third quarter of 2017. Of these, 525 were as a result of pregnancy.
And Sin d a midwife Yonile Msimuko said the death rate from pregnancy complications is higher for girls under the age of 15 years.
“Stigmatisation by themselves and the community members causes them to commit criminal abortion that can lead to death,” she said.
Since most of the women prefer to use traditional healers, it is difficult to make an assessment of the extent to which unsafe abortion is prevalent in the community. Rural traditional healers do not advertise their services and a shroud of secrecy surrounds even their identity.
And Mrs Banda, the headteacher at Masuwe Primary, called for more interventions from organisations such as REPSSI to initiate a behavioural change programme in the communities that would help more people make informed decisions.
REPSSI country director, Kelvin Ngoma said in an interview that the organisation has interventions that are all inclusive of the parents and the community in order that all aspects affecting the welfare of learners can be highlighted and addressed. He further said his organisation has introduced diploma courses accredited by TEVETA to ensure professionalism of people engaging with communities, children and youth.
“Our Community Based Work with Children and Youth diploma and skills award courses are offered to various service providers that include teachers, NGOs, police, correctional officers, health workers and individuals committed to render services to children, youth and wider communities,” he said.