The Danger Of An Out Of Context Narrative: Abortion Advocacy In Global Policy Spaces

Placard with "Our Bodies. Our Minds. Our Power." written on it.

Abortion is as old as humanity. It is inevitable and it is a health service that shouldn’t be debatable at any level anywhere. Unfortunately, it is. Women everywhere continue to fight for access to safe abortion as a human right, so much that even the legality of abortion health care doesn’t erase the stigma attached to it, by health providers or society at large. This is not something women that require abortion services are about to get rid of now, given that the moral compass stays in the hands of the patriarchal system, almost anywhere in the world.

Access to safe abortion is a human right in itself but also intrinsically linked to the realization of other human rights – like the right to health, right to life, to privacy, and to protection from violence and inhuman treatment, as spelt out in various human rights instruments. Advocacy for this right, like other human rights, always needs to be contextualized especially in how and what needs to be done to ensure its realisation. 

Even if the factors that result in the need and want for abortion care are universal, their magnitude and causality linked to structural and systemic issues can differ from context to context. In some contexts, the biggest barrier to access abortion health care may be the stigma in society at large, whereas in other contexts, it could be the lack of access to health infrastructure, as well as the limited number of health providers, which can both be due to limited economic resources and/or ecological factors that cause uninhabitable environments.

Implementation of Global North crafted macroeconomic policies continues to widen income inequalities, debt crisis, and poverty which makes life worse for already marginalized groups including women and girls.

In Global South contexts, women’s rights activists can no longer isolate the right to abortion from economic and ecological crises, like those mentioned in this specific case of The intersecting barriers to accessing abortion in Rwanda, which demonstrates how “a siloed approach does little to confront the major structural challenges we are facing” 

Implementation of Global North crafted macroeconomic policies continues to widen income inequalities, debt crisis, and poverty which makes life worse for already marginalized groups including women and girls. 

In many cases, abortion is more of a poverty issue than a moral issue in some global south contexts. The lack of realization of the right to abortion is related to the lack of realization of health in general and other aspects of people’s lives. In Rwanda, the current (2019-2020) unmet need for contraception, which contributes to the demand for abortion services, is highest among poor people (15%) and the uneducated (19%). Rwanda can barely afford to meet the costs of the health sector needs. The current health sector strategic plan accounts for more than 20% of the national domestic income health sector strategic plan. This creates an endless dependency on foreign aid which is neocolonial conditional and unpredictable.

To achieve a balanced narrative in global advocacy for abortion rights that is intersectional, it also requires us all to adopt a feminist approach to leadership and to the production of knowledge.

It is crucial that we, in the global south and our allies, and fellow women’s rights activists in the global north refrain from using generalized and out of context narratives that call for the realization of abortion irrespective of other multiple and intersecting crises that cause, sustain, and continue to make it impossible for women and girls in the global south to realize the right to abortion. This is particularly important in the context of global policy advocacy. 

As a global south feminist, I would identify with and support statements that call for addressing the right to abortion such as recently stated in a joint civil society statement on abortion rights at the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, only if they were not solely directed to individual member states but also to global north led institutions, systems, policies, and practices that continue to perpetuate inequalities and injustices.

To achieve a balanced narrative in global advocacy for abortion rights that is intersectional, it also requires us all to adopt a feminist approach to leadership and to the production of knowledge. This requires intentional efforts to ensure redistribution of power and responsibility among feminist activists in a way that is inclusive, participatory and mindful of contextual issues including race and social classes. The approach should pave ways to ensure that those unequally affected by inaccessibility of abortion health care can lead the advocacy. It should be grounded in the storytellers’ realities and not of the tellers’. It should take a decolonial feminist stance that stays conscious of the colonial and neocolonial powers that are still at play in our organizing, within and among states.

BY CHANTAL UMUHOZA