An increasing number of women are dying due to a lack of access to safe abortions. (David Harrison, M&G)

Women's Month: Turn empty platitudes into action

Marion Stevens
Until all women are safe and have access to health services, Women's Month will mean nothing, writes Marion Stevens.

Health is not only the preserve of the department of health. August is generally known as Women's Month and the range of women's health issues that are glossed over perhaps need a little more examination and so, too, to note the role of other government divisions such as the department of safety and security.

Our mother body and its female leaders championed access to abortion services, which, after wide consultation, went through Parliament under the leadership of Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Women choose to have abortions and if the service is unavailable it is poor women who suffer. In South Africa, they are usually black and, nowadays, also possibly HIV infected. Increasing numbers of women are dying because of the lack of access to safe and legal abortions.

The health department has taken its eye off the ball in terms of the implementation of services. This is a challenge because a vibrant illegal market in backstreet abortions is flourishing again.

The department of health has passed the baton to the departments of safety and security and criminal justice to investigate and stop this illegal market, but it is apparent that they have no incentive to address these challenges and illegal providers continue to offer services to poor women with impunity.

Sadly, the City of Cape Town sees the advertising of illegal abortion services as an environmental problem. A request to get the police and the departments of health and environment together to discuss getting the police to investigate the issue has been met with a letter of retort and a request for any information to be passed on to the police to assist them with evidence "which may help in the investigation side of things". We need better leadership from our police and the City of Cape Town.

Lack of opportunities
It may be the oldest profession, but growing numbers of women are choosing sex work, given the lack of opportunities available in our economy.

Sex workers are part of the prevention and treatment response to HIV and are included in the key populations categories. Sex workers need condoms and abortions. The government and international programmes have funded great plans to train peer educators to enable the distribution of condoms and lubrication as part of the armoury against HIV prevention.

The problem is, however, that sex work is still criminalised in South Africa and police vans follow peer educators to harass and arrest sex workers and confiscate condoms as evidence against them.

Sex workers have been detained over the weekends without access to their HIV treatment. The situation in Cape Town is particularly bad because of a rather horrid vice squad. We wish they would go after the illegal abortion providers instead, but seemingly there are additional benefits when harassing sex workers.

This month two significant meetings took place. On August 15 the deputy minister of police, Makhotso Maggie Sotyu, met with the non-governmental organisations Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the South African Sex Worker Movement (Sisonke). The harassment and abuse of adult sex workers, both on the streets and during police apprehensions, were discussed.

The progress to decriminalise adult sex work in South Africa is another dominant issue of concern that Sweat and Sisonke have raised. Decriminalisation was also addressed in the sex work sector plan of the South African National Aids Council that was launched on August 23 at a meeting with the support of the deputy minister for women, children and people with disability, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu.

Equity and equality
Civil society welcomes the deputy minister of police's celebration of Women's Month with a programme that seeks to address and advocate for women's rights, equity and equality in South Africa. Her acknowledgment of the special responsibilities given to the ministry of police to give active support to the government's theme for this year's Women's Month programme is to be applauded.

The deputy minister urges all relevant stakeholders, including police officers, "to deliver high-quality services and a constructive relationship to uphold human rights during law enforcement", but we request that she provides leadership, gives traction to her statements to deal swiftly with the illegal abortion providers and directs her staff to stop harassing sex workers.

Civil society also welcomes the Aids Council's sex worker plan and in particular the move to decriminalise  sex work, which will go a long way towards the practical implementation of HIV prevention and treatment services for sex workers and their clients.

If Women's Month is to be anything more than a time of predictable platitudes, we need our police and health services to protect all women.

It is only when a women's place is everywhere and women can have safe abortions on demand, sex workers are not treated as criminals and women are free to walk anywhere at night that we will have reason to celebrate.

Marion Stevens is the co-ordinator of the reproductive group Wish Associates

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Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumasex workerswomen's monthgender equity