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Commentary Human Rights

The Right to Abortion Care May Be One Step Closer to Reality for African Women

Naisola Likimani & Patty Skuster

In 2003, the African Union adopted the only human rights treaty in the world to explicitly outline the right to abortion care. However, the majority of African governments have done very little to enact that right in practice.

Women in Africa have a clear right to abortion—on paper, that is. In 2003, the African Union adopted the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In doing so, its charter became the only human rights treaty in the world to explicitly outline the right to abortion care. However, although 54 member states of the African Union adopted the protocol and 36 have ratified it, the majority of these governments have done very little to enact reproductive health-care provisions in practice.

Some have done better than others; Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia are working to make sure services are available. Overall, however, African women still lack access to contraception and face disproportionately high risks of maternal mortality and sexual violence. In 2008, African women also comprised 62 percent of total deaths from unsafe abortion worldwide. Poor, uneducated, and young women fare the worst.

In order to narrow the gap between the promise and realization of African women’s right to reproductive health care, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted General Comment No. 2 last year, releasing it online earlier this month. The document was drafted under the guidance of Commissioner Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, with technical support from the Ipas Africa Alliance and input from numerous reproductive rights and legal experts throughout the region. Through this General Comment, the commission provided guidance on how governments can interpret and implement articles of the protocol that guarantee women the right to obtain abortions, as well as the right to control their fertility, to decide whether and when to have children, and to access contraception, family planning education, and health services.

In its General Comment, the commission emphasized that governments must make reproductive health services available, accessible, acceptable, and of good quality. Furthermore, the commission recommended governments remove barriers to abortion care, such as unnecessary restrictions on providers, police and judicial authorization requirements, and third-party consent laws (such as from a husband or parent).

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By adopting General Comment No. 2, the commission took a bold and important step in clarifying the abortion provisions of the protocol, itself groundbreaking in that it guarantees the right to abortion even in an environment where the procedure remains highly stigmatized.

Abortion is legal in every African country to save the life of a pregnant woman, and many nations permit it on broader grounds. However, in practice, existing legal and political barriers often hinder women’s access to reproductive health services. Governments everywhere, including in Africa, have a long history of criminalizing women seeking abortion and those who provide it. Without safe abortion care available, woman often risk their lives trying to end unwanted pregnancy. And in countries with the most restrictive laws, that risk is heightened.

In addition to clarifying the rights outlined in the protocol, General Comment No. 2 restated both prevailing international law and the World Health Organization’s recommendations on government obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill women’s right to abortion care. Advocates, too, can use the commission’s guidance to educate a range of stakeholders—including health-care providers, lawyers, policymakers, and judges—on how to enact those obligations. For advocates and governments alike, General Comment No. 2 serves as a blueprint for action to save women’s lives and ensure they can realize their reproductive health rights across Africa and beyond.

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