The decision to opt for an abortion (for whatever reason) is never an easy one. We should therefore stop casting aspersions on anyone grappling with such a decision, because of our prejudices and misguided emotional/social/religious/cultural rhetoric. Every circumstance deserves access to every available option and given that women make up the majority of Namibia’s population, why do they not have the option to terminate an unplanned pregnancy for any reason, if they so choose?
Legalising abortion does not automatically mean that everyone will choose that option. The principle is to have the option available, as an addition to the current options such as adoption, abstinence, forced teenage parenthood, baby dumping and infanticide, poverty and the continued disempowerment of girls and women.
Please explain how the current policy of allowing female students to continue schooling up until one month prior to confinement makes any sense. This policy, although well-intended, does not address the broader socio-economic problems that teenage pregnancies attract. It is short-sighted, discriminatory and seems to perpetuate irresponsible behaviour on the part of men, boys and girls’ families who all too often go to extraordinary and criminal lengths to conceal/deny their involvement in such pregnancies.
Why are teenage girls forced to continue these unwanted pregnancies? Most of these pregnancies are a result of rape, intimidation, threats, ignorance, financial gain and the emotional immaturity of teenagers (which is to be expected since their brains are still growing). They are not emotionally ready to be parents and no amount of yelling, blaming, punishment will prevent irresponsible behaviour. However, correct information, open discussions about sex and sexuality and an understanding of what happens during puberty, would be a better way of guiding teenage behaviour in a non-threatening manner.
Sadly, in most instances, these girls come from single-parent, poverty-stricken households with limited or no access to family-planning information, contraception or gender-specific rights training. The lure of money, good grades, or conversely, the fear of being failed by a teacher or principal, fear of physical harm to herself or her family if she doesn’t yield to sexual demands, are but some of the reasons that teenage girls end up in such situations. To introduce a policy that allows them to remain in school for the duration of an unwanted/unplanned pregnancy is insulting to say the least! It is insulting because this policy seems to support the ineffectiveness of the police, school authorities, parents, communities, courts, social workers and the like, to promptly and effectively address these criminal cases. It also forces the pregnant student to interact and/or face her perpetrator/accomplice on a daily basis, not to mention the social ostracism, gossip and ridicule, with little or no recourse to the law or internal school disciplinary procedures.
This policy should be scrapped and replaced with strict, prompt and effective adherence to statutory rape and criminal law regulations as well as internal school disciplinary procedures. School authorities must be held accountable for the conduct of all their representatives whereby school boards and principals who fail to keep their teenage pregnancy rates below a 1% annual target, should all resign and be brought before the law.
Secondly, introduce a nation-wide effective parenting (for adult parents) and family planning campaign. It is up to the relevant ministries and national planning entities to develop the appropriate synergies, framework, structures, resources and partnerships with communities, NGOs, businesses, parents, schools and the youth to effect such a campaign. Some of the focus areas should include a cost-analysis of child-rearing.
From a life-skills perspective, targeted programmes addressing issues like contraception, sex, relationship counseling, gender sensitivity, work ethics, discipline and effective parenting should all be part of an age-appropriate school curriculum. Schools should provide self-defense classes and regular inspirational talks and boot-camp programmes (over the school holidays) that realistically address issues facing students today.
Employers should consider offering meaningful benefits, such as child supervision or school transport services as part of their remuneration packages or flexible/part-time working conditions such as the option to work from home via laptop and video-conferencing facilities. Granted there may be a reduction in remuneration should an employee opt for fewer working hours, however that is up to the employee to decide depending on his/her individual needs and circumstances. The point is that our children are being raised by media-fuelled consumerist values and uneducated communities, because we as parents are unable to effectively balance our work and home lives.
Health Clinics that include free reproductive health, contraception and disease prevention & management services, as well as legal and safe abortions must be established with well-trained professionals and unbiased counseling services. Why not use the same approach, if not also the existing VCT facilities and counselors, to expand services to include a comprehensive reproductive health service programme. This programme could also be linked to confidential, professional and proactive rape-crisis counseling, police and legal aid networks and services.
Men and boys who continually prey on women and children must also suffer the consequences of their actions in the form of swift, unbiased police investigations and court proceedings, lengthy jail terms and monetary obligations in the case of paying for abortions (outside of Namibia that is) and/or child-rearing/adoption fees. It is not up to the teenage girl and her family alone to bear the full brunt of an unplanned pregnancy due to the often irresponsible, violent and intimidating conduct of men and boys. That said, families who take advantage of these situations for financial gain by covering up or withdrawing criminal cases are equally at fault and must be prosecuted.
The issue of whether or not to legalise abortion is a socio-economic one. Namibia simply cannot afford, much less manage, the rapid population growth against the unacceptable living costs, the high unemployment rate, the risk of HIV infection and sexually transmitted infections, the food supply, education, medical and housing deficits etc. This issue is also a gender-specific one. We cannot continue to disempower the women and young girls from managing their own bodies and reproductive functions.
They too should have equal access to social dignity and respect, quality education when they most need it and income-earning opportunities. This in turn will afford them a better chance to raise children they want and planned for, at an age and maturity-level that allows them to be the best parents they can be and not the parents they are forced to be, often while they themselves are still children.