There is a petition signed by over 5,000 people calling for the government to legalize women’s rights to choose when they have children. We applaud this effort; it is long overdue.

Any human being has a right to decide what happens to their bodies. The discussion around sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) is important. The debate must respond to the silent cry of women forced to give birth against their will.

The existing Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975 law is 45 years old. This apartheid-era law was written by South African white men, who patronizingly considered women as minors. It must fall.

Women in their majority are not minors. They have every right to make decisions about every aspect of their lives, including whether they have a baby.

The minister of gender equality, poverty eradication and social welfare, Doreen Sioka should consider this issue carefully before giving pre-emptive personal opinions. This matter needs a collective societal decision. Let it be led by women of child-bearing years who are directly affected by the outcome.

Those not facing the sensitive, personal choice of deciding to conclude a pregnancy should be quiet initially. Step back for now and listen to those who would be carrying these unwanted babies. Hear what they say, not only what you think. Avoid jumping in with judgemental, emotive ‘shut down’ pontifications reflecting individual moralistic viewpoints.

Abortions in certain cases are already legal in Namibia. And of course, women determined to end their unwanted pregnancies will find a method one way or another. Having archaic apartheid-era laws to disadvantage women and remove the choice for an abortion, is not working.

According to the Ministry of Health, there were 7,335 abortion cases from April to December 2016 (confidentenamibia.com). In proven cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger, abortions are legal. Also in 2016, there were 138 ‘legal’ abortions, quietly done. Where were the populist statements such as, “carry the baby and give it to us” for these unwanted pregnancies? There is a whiff of hypocrisy in the air.

Arguments about adoption, foster care, and orphanages as an alternative for ending unwanted pregnancies are aspirational. The feeble, underfunded, and understaffed, programs that exist for unwanted children are shameful. Namibia has no resources or political will to care for unwanted babies institutionally. Extended families of women suffering through unwanted pregnancies are struggling. Expecting them to take on a 20+ year commitment to a baby is not reasonable. The under-reported cases of child abuse, brutal child labor, and children growing up feeling discarded are byproducts of forced family adoptions.

The current system of having babies and dropping them on impoverished grandmothers in rural areas is not a solution; it is a problem. These women have already given their years caring for children. They love the babies in their care but often, do not have the physical ability, temperament, or resources to raise a child again.

To support a woman’s right to choose is not being myopically pro-abortion. This issue is cross-cutting. We value women empowerment. We support women receiving counseling to make informed decisions about their health. Moreover, there must be an immediate end to unsafe, unclean, deadly back-alley medical procedures.

In addition, there is a classist element to those ostensibly opposing abortion. Rich women can pay to have a private doctor and the privately funded tests that could provide the medical reasoning to justify a legal abortion. Or, they can afford to fly/drive to South Africa and have it done there.

This debate, therefore, addresses to the marginalized, unseen and disrespected class of low-income women who are forced to have children they do not want.

The debate on this issue must be loud and consistent. Bring this issue to the people and let them speak at the ballot box. Ask the question in the next election. Too many of our young women are taught to keep their eyes down, keep quiet, bend their knees in ‘respect’ to elders, cook, tend babies, and go to the fields. Women are saying ‘NO’ to other people’s decisions about their lives. They demand a choice. Don’t be fooled by their furious silence.

Legal abortions with reasonable controls to ensure informed consent must happen. Lift women’s chains.