WD2023: Participants call for heightened efforts to destigmatize abortion

By Jane Babirye
On 19 July 2023 at 03:44

As the Women Deliver Conference 2023 (WD2023) continues at various prominent venues in Kigali, Rwanda, including the Kigali Convention Center, Kigali Marriott Hotel, Four Points by Sheraton Hotel, Ubumwe Grande Hotel, M-Hotel, and Lemigo Hotel, a number of plenary sessions, side events, and concurrent sessions are dedicated to discussions on gender equality, gender-based violence, and the rights of girls and women.

On July 18th, 2023, a session hosted and moderated by Sonali Silva, Vice-chair of the SheDecides Guiding Group, convened attendees of WD2023 to raise awareness about the significance of abortion as healthcare and the reasons it should be included in universal health coverage.

Esteemed thought leaders, committed to destigmatizing abortion and establishing an enabling environment for abortion care, graced the session.

During the first panel, Dr. Bela Ganatra, the Unit Head of the Preventing Unsafe Abortion Department of Sexual & Reproductive Health & Research (SRHR) at the World Health Organization (WHO), emphasized the importance of abortion as an essential component of healthcare. Dr. Ganatra shed light on the journey of abortion healthcare, which has spanned over two decades, highlighting the evidence supporting the provision of safe abortion care.

She stressed that what was once viewed as a complex hospital-based intervention is, in fact, a series of simple primary healthcare medical interventions that can be seamlessly integrated into existing primary and public health infrastructures at minimal additional costs.

Dr. Ganatra also acknowledged that merely including abortion services in health centers is insufficient, as there are still barriers to integration. To truly recognize abortion as healthcare, she argued against treating it as a criminal activity, as many countries currently do. Overcoming legal barriers and enforcing laws that support safe abortion is crucial for implementing practical recommendations and ensuring the availability of safe abortion services.

Dr. Bilguissou Balde, Regional Director of Ipas Francophone Africa and Interim Director of Le Centre ODAS, shared her insights during the first panel, emphasizing the transformative impact of providing access to safe abortion services in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Benin, and Sierra Leone. Dr. Balde called upon other countries, such as Senegal and Madagascar, to draw inspiration from these positive changes.

She underscored the importance of collaboration and commitment among governments, civil societies, healthcare providers, and partners in advocating for and maintaining abortion as a health issue, rather than a political one.

Highlighting the barriers hindering progress in safe abortion, Esi Asare Prah, Advocacy and Donor Relations Manager at MSI Reproductive Choices Ghana, emphasized the lack of adequate information about safe abortion for young people, hindering their ability to make informed decisions. She stressed the need to include abortion in sex education programs to dispel the misconception that abortion is illegal, even in countries where it is not.

Jean Pierre Wangbe, Head of the Legal Unit at the Ministry of Health (MOH) in Benin, credited the country for restructuring abortion laws, which has significantly reduced the death rates of girls who previously resorted to unsafe abortion. However, he noted that there is still ignorance surrounding the amended law, necessitating further education and awareness efforts.

Delphine O, the Ambassador Secretary-General of the Generation Equality Forum in France, addressed the misconceptions surrounding France’s pro-family stance. She clarified that being pro-family means supporting women in all their diversity, endorsing families of all kinds, including LGBTQ+ families, promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), comprehensive sexual education, and advocating for abortion rights. Delphine acknowledged France’s efforts to ensure global access to safe abortion, emphasizing that the right to abortion is a fundamental right.

Sangeeta Kausha Mishra, Additional Health Secretary at the Ministry of Health and Population in Nepal, shared Nepal’s progress in safe abortion. Before 2002, women in Nepal faced arrests and isolation for seeking abortions, but legal policy changes since then have led to capacity development in decentralized health services, constant advocacy and campaigning, and government financing.

Sarah Onyango, Senior Technical Advisor for Selfcare at PSI and Project Director Sarah Thomsen, Lead Policy Specialist for Health and SRHR at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), highlighted innovative solutions and advancements in abortion care.

The session on abortion as healthcare and fundamental rights represents one of the many empowering sessions attended by female activists at the Women Deliver Conference.