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The war on African women is supported by foreign activists, with no regard for our lives

I know what life is like when access to sexual and reproductive services is limited. In Nigeria and across the continent, this must end now.

Olutimehin Adegbeye
1 November 2019
A Marie Stopes centre in Malawi, 2012. Clinics across the continent have been targeted by anti-abortion activists.
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Photo: Flickr/Lindsay Mgbor/DFID. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.

In May, police officers raided a Marie Stopes clinic in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital. Witnesses said the officers harassed patients and accused them of illegally accessing confidential documents. It was the latest in a string of attacks against groups that support women’s reproductive rights. Nigerian feminists, women’s rights campaigners and LGBTIQ+ activists came together on social media to ask, “what is going on?”. A consensus was reached: there is a strategic effort to undermine our sexual and reproductive health and rights, with women’s bodies a key battleground.

Nigeria’s patriarchal conservatism is hardly news; women, girls and queer folks in this country are regularly and legally denied autonomy, the rate of sexual violence is high, while sexual and reproductive healthcare is extremely limited. Nigeria accounts for more than 10% of global maternal deaths, despite representing only 2.5% of the global population, and a 2013 study showed that only 16% of Nigerian women of reproductive age (15-49) have access to, and use, contraception.

This means that more than four out of five Nigerian women are unable to prevent unwanted pregnancies. When they do get pregnant, many are forced to choose between birthing children they don’t want, or can’t afford – or risking unsafe, illegal terminations (abortion is only legal in Nigeria if a doctor deems the woman’s life is in danger). The same 2013 study showed that despite unsafe abortion being a leading cause of maternal death, Nigeria’s abortion rate (33 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 49 years), remains higher than sub-Saharan Africa’s average.

“There is a strategic effort to undermine our sexual and reproductive health and rights, with women’s bodies a key battleground”

Online, Nigerian feminists and LGBTIQ activists drew connections between recent cases of unlawful detention and sexual assault by state agents in Abuja, the political capital, and the police raid on Marie Stopes in Lagos, the economic capital. They could see similarities in the tactics used amidst escalating state violence that has included attacks on women using public transport, sex workers and queer women.

As their social media campaign with the hashtag #EndWarOnNigerianWomen spread, an organisation called CitizenGo appeared to publicly take credit for targeting Marie Stopes in their newsletters and social media posts – stating that they had staged the request for an abortion at the clinic that led to the raid. (Marie Stopes in Nigeria helps people to prevent unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, manage their sexual and reproductive health, and recover from complications related to unsafe abortions, but the law restricts them from providing abortions).

CitizenGo is an anti-feminist, anti-queer organisation with links to US-based anti-choice activists and the European far right. It is also closely linked to the World Congress of Families, a network founded in the 1990s by US Christian right leader Allan Carlson, with the central goal to nurture ultra-conservative ‘pro-family’ organisations, thinkers, state officials, and religious groups around the world. This week, this network is hosting an African regional conference in Accra, Ghana.

Recently, CitizenGo also claimed credit for campaigns against clinics in Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Tanzania, while spreading sensationalist misinformation about reproductive healthcare via online petitions and offline lobbying. For instance, they claim children are injected with contraceptives at “blood thirsty clinics”. They say their own activities include training and partnering with local anti-choice groups to “stop abortion”, confront the “radical left” and promote “family values”.

Around the world, including in the US, organised movements are undermining women’s health, safety and bodily autonomy. They work to influence debates at global meetings like the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women gathering in New York City as well as with national government officials and agencies. In Africa, CitizenGo has also partnered with groups like Culture of Life Africa, founded by the Nigerian Catholic anti-abortion activist Obianuju Ekeocha, who lives in the UK; and the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage ‘pro-family’ advocacy coalition.

These groups push misinformation about the activities of reproductive health and rights organisations to ensure that all people adhere to a one-dimensional interpretation of (Christian) ‘family values’ which enthrone unchecked reproduction within heterosexual marriage, at any cost. Contrary to the lies they often peddle, pro-choice groups do not exist to profit from women’s increased access to services – they are working to ensure that people have the information and resources they need to manage their health, including pregnancies. In doing so, they’re saving lives.

“They want all people to adhere to a one-dimensional interpretation of (Christian) ‘family values”

Threatening already limited access to contraception, sex education, and safe abortion services only forces women to prioritise full-term pregnancies and births over everything else – including their health, safety, economic prospects, and even the quality of life of any children they may have. Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable women and girls who bear the greatest burden of such situations.

I have firsthand knowledge of what life is like when access to sexual and reproductive education and services are limited, as groups like CitizenGo want. In 2012, I gave birth to a daughter after I became pregnant as a result of inadequate sex education and incorrect use of contraception. The Guttmacher Institute reported that 25% of all pregnancies in Nigeria in the year my daughter was born were unintended. About a third of these women carried their pregnancies to term.

About 12% of these women had miscarriages. But more than half – 56% – elected to abort their pregnancies, even though the highly restrictive laws in Nigeria put anyone seeking abortions at risk of up to 14 years in prison. Statistics like these show why the work of organisations like Marie Stopes, that seek to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people, is so important.

The need for legal, safe abortions is part of broader demands for sexual and reproductive justice that is essential for social and economic prosperity for everyone, not just women. Unplanned births can deepen poverty and the vulnerability of mothers and children to violence and illness. By definition, abortions only happen after conception, and unplanned pregnancies are generally preventable.

We have ample evidence that when people, especially women and young girls, have access to quality, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education, and non-discriminatory healthcare, including contraception, the result is fewer abortions.

Denying women and girls access to safe abortions, while also opposing projects like Marie Stopes that provide contraception, live-saving advice and emergency medical care is simply condemning women and girls to death. Valuing life has to mean more than valuing the birth of every child that could potentially result from a pregnancy.

“Valuing life has to mean more than valuing the birth of every child that could potentially result from a pregnancy”

A pregnancy does not automatically make a person willing, ready or able to carry it to term or be a good, capable parent. When anti-choice groups like CitizenGo and its partners target organisations like Marie Stopes, that offer sexual and reproductive health services to mostly low-income women, they make it clear that they do not care about women’s lives, or even the lives of the children they claim to be so invested in.

This is why Nigerian feminists, healthcare activists and women’s rights organisers came together for the #EndWarOnNigerianWomen social campaign, to resist the jeopardisation of our lives by such groups. Our government and institutions, including the police, cannot meet the needs of citizens, and their own stated health goals, by succumbing to these groups’ demands to deny or roll back rights.

The Nigerian National Strategic Health Development plan for 2018-2022 states the need to “Promote universal access to comprehensive quality sexual and reproductive health services throughout the life cycle and reduce maternal, neonatal, child and adolescent morbidity and mortality in Nigeria.” The insistence that all foetuses become babies, at any cost, even when the lives and wellbeing of women and girls are at stake, is not pro-life. It is misogynistic and it must be resisted.

* This is an edited version of an article originally published on AWID.

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