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Crossing The Chasm

Reproductive Rights
South Africa

Crossing the chasm
Ferial Haffajee
reports from South Africa where the legacy of apartheid
is making changes to reproductive health a slow and tortuous process.

The woman’s hand fumbled nervously with the tissue, crumpling it again and again until it couldn’t get any smaller. She looked scared and cowed in the cheery police office where she had been brought on the Friday night she was raped.

But it was her sigh that conveyed a more frightening thought. There was about her a sense of the inevitable: it was almost as if Hilda had not been surprised by the young man who sprang from the bushes and threatened to stab her.

Her husband too seemed without rage as he clasped his wife’s hands when the police took them back to their rough zinc hut later that night. As he held up the barbed-wire fence for her to climb through all he said was: ‘We had a little trouble today.’

Rape poses a great conundrum to South Africa’s fledgling Government. A woman is raped every 36 seconds. Last year this translated into almost 50,000 rapes, which police say must be multiplied 20 times to get closer to a real figure.

Violence is sown into the fabric of South African life. In an already very patriarchal African society, apartheid came along to amplify the levels of family violence, battery and gender oppression. When a brutal government deprived them of land, identity and dignity many men turned on their wives and girlfriends, beating them. Dark townships without street-lights became a breeding ground for gangsters who raped for power and pleasure – and who still do.

In the past four years the African National Conference (ANC) Government has ushered in great changes for women, including new abortion laws, better primary healthcare and creative reproductive health policies.

But reproductive health and family planning are still tainted concepts in South Africa where apartheid governments withheld basic healthcare from blacks and spent millions on population control in its macabre experiment in social engineering. Thousands of women in the past died at the hands of back-street abortionists who plied a dubious and shadowy trade. Many women remain infertile today, lucky to have escaped alive.

Once in office, the ANC began to undo the damage. Free healthcare was introduced for pregnant women and children under six years old. Other changes like free pap smears and cervical cancer testing are on the cards.

Against a groundswell of objection (which saw the pro-life lobby injecting mock foetuses with larger-than-life syringes on national television) the Termination of Pregnancy Act was also passed – paving the way to free and safe abortions. Between February and December last year 26,406 safe abortions were carried out.

Despite the real progress many women remain powerless or frightened. Barbara Klugman is the director of the Women’s Health Project which has helped the Government to pioneer some of the best changes. Klugman says nothing will happen until three basic issues are dealt with: ‘A lack of human rights, a lack of dignity and a lack of respect.’

While laws and policies have changed, power relations remain unchanged. Many women are denied abortions by their husbands or boyfriends, who still see children as bounty. In the Western Cape, community workers who tried to introduce contraceptives in squatter camps found again and again that women were not allowed to use them. They were even powerless to ask their partner to wear a condom, although many accepted that he had several sexual partners. ‘My husband has a girlfriend; he’s actually threatened to leave and to beat me up if I take the Pill or the injection,’ said one woman.

Those women who do manage to negotiate change in their homes and lives face another obstacle when they get to hospitals and clinics. Many doctors and nurses have firm opinions on contraception and often refuse to perform abortions. Some women resort to the back-streets again because they can’t stomach the humility of being admonished at state hospitals.

Non-governmental organizations complain that ‘help lines’ meant to provide women with urgent counselling and advice often go unanswered for days. Young people (who comprise almost one in two South Africans) don’t use the counselling service, either because they don’t know about it or because they face negative attitudes from health professionals.

‘Nurses are always angry, they think we are young and should not use condoms. They put you off when you go for condoms or injections. Their attitudes are bitchy,’ says a young man from Gauteng.

True liberation, in the field of reproductive health at least, must first cross these minefields of attitudes and knowledge. Among young and old myth still takes the place of information. A young man from Kwazulu-Natal says: ‘Maybe Coke can help, the bubbles may disturb pregnancy.’ So, apparently, does gin (especially effective when the whole bottle is drunk neat) and perhaps even the digestive effervescent Eno.

Aloma Foster has just completed the first-ever sexuality training course for senior-school teachers. She found that teachers passed on these myths to students and that homophobia was rampant. Conservatism was the order of the day and teachers blindly taught only ‘abstinence’ to young people – who on average begin to have sex when they are 12.

A classroom game called ‘The Choice’ was developed as a fun and innovative way of presenting the sexuality choices young people face. But teachers vetoed it and it lies to this day in store-rooms around the country.

Nonetheless, Foster feels the effort has been worthwhile. ‘The response from black teachers has been very heartening. Many will take it back to their communities because they’re not only teachers, they’re leaders.’

Trainers like Foster realise that cutting-edge policies and path-breaking legislation alone do not make healthy nations. Before women (and the country) can truly reap the benefits of reproductive health, she believes South Africa must cross the chasm from violence and fear to freedom and choice.

Ferial Haffajee is Economics Writer with the Mail & Guardian, an independent weekly newspaper in South Africa. She has also worked as a radio producer and television reporter.

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