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As Teenagers Die, Zimbabwean Lawmakers Call for Abortion Reform

Marko Phiri

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen her 15-year-old daughter fell pregnant last year, Irene Ndlovu secretly arranged for an abortion before the pregnancy became visible so that she could continue with her education.

Abortions are only allowed in Zimbabwe if a woman’s life is in danger, if there is a risk that the child will be “seriously handicapped” or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. Those who break the law can be jailed for five years.

“It was the only sensible thing to do at the time,” Ndlovu, who declined to give her real name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Do I regret it now? I don’t know.”

Abortion is controversial in Zimbabwe, a largely Christian nation, where more than 70,000 women undergo unsafe terminations each year, risking death from haemorrhage, infection or shock, according to the healthcare provider Marie Stopes International.

Calls to amend the southern African country’s 1977 abortion law are mounting amid growing awareness of the large number of teenage girls dying from backstreet abortions, activists say.

According to the United Nations (U.N.), Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate of 443 deaths per 100,000 live births is triple that of neighbouring South Africa, where abortion is legal.

“Abortion remains high on the causes of maternal mortality contributing about 16 percent (of) deaths,” Bernard Madzima, head of family health in the health ministry, said in emailed comments.

Teenagers account for almost one in three of Zimbabwe’s abortion-related maternal deaths, he said, adding that the government recently completed a report on abortion prevalence “which will give us information on the way forward”.

Madzima has previously told parliament that reviewing the abortion law is beyond the health ministry’s jurisdiction and would require inputs from cultural and religious leaders.

Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, a lawmaker who heads the parliamentary committee on women and youth, has been touring the country to collect people’s views on abortion, which she said will be presented to parliament as part of the reform process.