Pro-Choice Ugandans Steer a Gradual Course

Monday, August 27, 2007

Abortion has been a non-starter for politicians in Uganda torn between health workers and the church. But as the rest of Africa begins to shift its stance, pro-choice activists are making their mark. First in a series on African women and the rule of law.

Nulu Lwanga KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--Nulu Lwanga was barely managing to feed her four children selling banana juice from a roadside shack when she learned she was pregnant again.

Abortion is illegal in Uganda. It is also widely practiced, as Lwanga well knew. A woman in her neighborhood had recently bled to death at the hands of a traditional healer who had unsuccessfully tried to end her pregnancy with poisonous herbs.

Asked if she told her husband about her predicament, Lwanga just laughed. "These African men, they just want to have babies, babies," she explained through a translator. "They don't want to be responsible for them."

Abortion--which is banned, except in special circumstances, in most African countries--is a leading cause of the continent's very high maternal mortality rates. According to the World Health Organization, about 4.2 million unsafe abortions occur each year in Africa, resulting in about 30,000 deaths, nearly half of the total number of women who die from abortion complications worldwide.

But abortion has long been a no-go topic for local politicians, who typically walk a tightrope between the arguments of health workers and influential Christian leaders by saying as little about the issue as possible.

That may be changing.

Liberalizing Moves in Africa

Lawmakers in Mozambique, under pressure from the health ministry there, are expected this fall to end--or liberalize--the country's more than century-old prohibition on the procedure, joining the handful of African countries, mostly in Francophone West Africa, where abortion is legal. And an increasing number of high profile Kenyan leaders have been calling for "an open debate" on the issue. Among the latest is Vice President Moody Awori, a practicing Catholic.

In Uganda, the controversy that bubbles up on newspaper editorial pages and radio talk shows every time the abortion question is raised here has become familiar. A few months ago, the well respected leader of the country's Human Rights Commission, Margaret Ssekagya, provoked anger from the country's powerful religious establishment when she declared that "we should promote safe abortion instead of running away from the reality."

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