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‘Sexual and Reproductive Rights should always be fought for’

It is men who are critical of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, say eminent African women at the African Leaders’ Summit on Safe Legal Abortion in Addis Ababa, where a South African delegation is championing the issue of sexual and reproductive rights.

This past week I was in Addis Abba at the African Leaders’ Summit on Safe Legal Abortion. In the room were an impressive group who were senators, judges, ambassadors, ministers of health, Members of Parliament, technical advisors, special rapporteurs, commissioners, special envoys, academics, activists and health providers who came from all corners of our continent. Our own Minister Bathabile Dlamini had been invited to the meeting, but could not attend because of commitments in South Africa.

Coming from South Africa, I was listening out for any mention of our African Union chair, Dr Nkhosazana Dlamini-Zuma. In particular I was curious about her legacy given that she is moving out of office and the attention she has been receiving given her possible nomination as president of the ANC. As a person who works in sexual and reproductive justice, I have worked around her in a number of settings.

I first met her in Parliament in 1995 during the long and thorough public consultation that led to the passing of our Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. This was when I had been supporting the ANC health committee in analysing the submissions for the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act and piecing together the rather scary Christian right and their webs of US connections in supporting guns, and opposing abortion, LGBTI rights etc. Dlamini-Zuma’s security carefully followed me onto the highway in my rustbucket and suggested that I get out of town that weekend. She reasoned they could see the operations of the right-wing harassing me in Parliament during the day. I observed her then and have over time admired and respected her very clear, uncompromising commitment to women’s rights.

It was the Special Envoy, Madame Bineta Diop, the African Union Commission Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, who mentioned Dlamini-Zuma first. She thanked her leadership in creating and supporting work of the summit at the AU. After the session I went up to this woman who wore her colourful damask dress and headwear beautifully, and thanked her for mentioning Dlamini-Zuma as in South Africa she was not well regarded. She looked at me and put her handbag down.

She replied that it is men who are leading the criticism of her, just like her previous husband pushed her out of local politics so he could lead the ANC. She said Dlamini-Zuma has built bridges and transformed how the AUC works to make it a success. (This was the day, too, of another success, the new Gambian president was sworn in peacefully.) For us, she went on, Dlamini-Zuma has made sure that the voices of women and the youth are central to the African Union.

I also spent time with Commissioner Lucy Asuagbor, who is the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. It was a year since she had launched the campaign to Decriminalise Abortion in Africa. She too sang Dlamini Zuma’s praises, suggesting very similar opinions to Madame Bineta Diop. On top of this, she was very well versed with South African politics and, in particular, how women politicians are given such a hard time in comparison to men. She remarked that the current president is her ex-husband and contended that Dlamini-Zuma has adult children, some of whom do not even use the Zuma surname.

Commissioner Lucy sat in on the whole meeting, listening attentively. During a break, I asked her why she did the work she did in relation to abortion rights. Her answer was simply that having come from a refugee camp in the Sudan the previous week, women suffer, and women are suffering, if you look at the statistics on why women are dying from something that is preventable.

The leaders put out the below declaration after the summit; it is an extraordinarily positive commitment given the global gag rule that was re-imposed by President Trump on Tuesday.

This week on Thursday February 2 is the 20th anniversary of the liberalisation of our abortion law with the passage of our Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act in the South African Parliament. South African abortion services took a dive in 2000 with the reimposition of the global gag rule under President G W Bush and we have not recovered yet, even under President Obama. With HIV services being the priority of the health system, our health department moved swiftly to exclude attention on abortion programming and services given that the government receives a large treatment and research budget from the US. The consequences for South African women have been devastating: only 40% of public surgical abortion facilities are operational, medical abortion drugs are not on our essential drug list, health providers opt out of providing women with abortion services without following the proper procedures for referral. It is estimated that 50% of abortions in SA are provided by illegal or informal providers and almost 10% of our maternal deaths are from unsafe abortions with 30% being from AIDS-related conditions.

Reproductive Justice remains a distant reality for South Africans, and one wonders who in our leadership will stand to resist the neo-colonial American agenda.

Given the tweet from Dlamini-Zuma hours before Trump reimposed the Global Gag rule, can we hope? She tweeted “Sexual and Reproductive Rights should always be fought for”; which got less than 30 retweets! In a week of intolerable political realignment and utterances, Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership should not be overlooked.

Africa is rising and Africa is leading – just read this statement from leaders on the African continent:

The Africa Leaders’ Declaration on Safe, Legal Abortion as a Human Right

We, the representatives of government, inter-governmental institutions, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society, medical fraternity, law enforcement agencies, youth, academia, representing all the five regions of Africa, having attended the African Leaders’ Summit on Safe and Legal Abortion on the 19th and 20th of January 2017 in Addis Ababa to develop strategies to advance the right to safe, legal abortion as a fundamental women’s human right in Africa;

ACKNOWLEDGING that Africa has a comprehensive legal and policy framework that supports the right to safe legal abortion which includes the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and the Revised Maputo Plan of Action 2016-2030;

NOTING that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) is implementing the Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Africa;

APPRECIATING the countries that have taken steps to enact and implement the continental framework on sexual and reproductive health and rights including passing progressive laws on abortion and making services available;

CONCERNED that some African States are yet to ratify the Maputo Protocol and that those that have are yet to implement it as they still retain very restrictive laws on abortion which, coupled with social, political, cultural and economic factors, predispose women and girls to unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions;

AWARE that as a consequence six-million unsafe abortions continue to occur on the continent each year resulting in the deaths of about 29,000 women and girls who are mostly young, poor, undereducated, rural-based, living with disabilities without any accountability for the same;

MINDFUL that 65% of the population in Africa constitutes of young people and that most are not meaningfully engaged economically, socially, culturally and politically at the national, sub-regional and regional levels impacting their ability to realise among others their sexual and reproductive health and rights including access to safe, legal abortion;

CONCERNED about shrinking space for civil society work in Africa including through restrictive regulatory frameworks;


  1. Individually and collectively mobilise our knowledge, resources and networks to ensure that every woman and girl has the right to make decisions about her body, her health and her future.
  2. Constructively engage key stakeholders in government and intergovernmental institutions at the national, sub-national, regional and global level to strengthen their capacity to promote and protect women’s and girls’ right to safe, legal abortion.

And URGE African governments and policy makers to:

  1. Ratify without reservations the Maputo Protocol by the end of 2017, and implement the Protocol by 2020 including by amending restrictive abortion laws and releasing all women, girls and health-care professionals who are incarcerated as a result of punitive abortion laws.
  2. Remove all policy and administrative barriers to women’s and girls’ access to safe abortion services, in consonance with the ACHPR campaign to decriminalize abortion in Africa.
  3. Review existing policies and adopt a plan of action on young people’s sexuality and access to information, pregnancy prevention and safe abortion in line with the Revised Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2016-2030; increase support and strengthen capacity for meaningful youth participation at national, sub-regional and regional levels in line with the African Union 2017 year of “Harnessing the Demographic dividend through investment in Youth” and beyond.
  4. Enable self-management of abortion using medical abortion, through wider access and policy change.
  5. Invest in effective preventive measures, including comprehensive sexuality education, elimination of gender discrimination and sexual violence, and full access to all modern contraceptive methods.
  6. Hold your representatives participating in the United Nations and other global health and human rights processes accountable for maintaining regional human rights commitments and policies on sexual and reproductive health including access to safe, legal abortion.
  7. Provide full protection for human rights defenders and advocates who work to advocate for the right to abortion and provide access to safe abortion services.
  8. Increase budget allocation for national SRHR programmes, while rejecting policies and funding that undermine efforts to combat unsafe abortion.
  9. Strengthen partnership, including with the media and national human rights institutions to ensure women’s access to safe abortion care and services.
  10. Join us in upholding and advancing these commitments and making them a reality for women and girls in every country and community in Africa.

Adopted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 20, 2017 DM


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