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On the spot - Abortion: We must go back to the drawing board

2020-10-30  Paheja Siririka

On the spot - Abortion: We must go back to the drawing board
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The outgoing United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) country representative Dennia Gayle (DG) bade farewell to Namibia after five years of commitment to serving the country and her people. New Era’s Paheja Siririka (PS) caught up with the development practitioner on the role the agency plays in countries like Namibia, their mandate and the challenges they face in supporting government with its plans.

PS: What is the role of UNFPA in Namibia?
DG: There are three things that made a difference in my tenure in Namibia: the first is I came in at the right time; it was at the time when President Hage Geingob was on his first term as head of state and had already established a clear vision. He wanted to eradicate poverty and build a Namibian house where nobody should feel left out.
What we did as a team is we went back to the UNFPA office and deliberated on what we can do to materialise that vision. We wanted to make sure two things happen: that the Namibian house is peaceful, so we were going to address GBV head-on in terms of prevention and response. 

Secondly, we also wanted to make sure that young people were not left out of that Namibian and the house will allow to fully nurture and reach their potential; it was a good time to be in Namibia at a time where the mission and vision were set so clear and we felt, as the UNFPA, we had our march in orders: reduce or eliminate poverty and build a Namibian house where nobody should be left out and we worked with that tremendously.

PS: How did you ensure those tasks were executed accordingly?
DG: As a UN agency, we don’t do the work; we are here to support, guide, provide technical advice to the government but having access to the ministries and the youth entities, different divisions and agencies of the government to be able to execute our support has always been fundamental. We can call any ministry, executive director, the technical staff, come around the table and understand what their needs are and set in motion a plan to help them execute those needs – and that is important to us. We are not the implementers; we are not here to do the work. We are here to support the government – to address the challenges they are encountering.

PS: What are the challenges the UNFPA has faced in supporting the government with its various plans?
DG: The high incidents of new HIV infections, especially among the adolescent, GBV and because these things were and still are prominent in the country; we knew we had to be at the table. We could not go away anytime soon. I keep asking the staff ‘why are we here, in Namibia?’ As development practitioners, what you want to do is eventually work your way out of the job because the longer you stay, it will be a poor reflection that those things are not being addressed adequately. 

The challenges in this country, something that is aligned with our mandate as an agency, is bringing to light the issue of teenage pregnancy; 19% of girls between the ages of 14 and 19 years old have become child-bearers in this country and that’s the average statistics. If you start breaking it down by region, you will realise some regions have teenage pregnancies of more than 35% and that is worrisome and a challenge.

PS: How did the team overcome those challenges?
DG: The way we did it is through the access because we got on the table with the ministries, CSOs and partners and played a convenient role. We brought the technical expertise – whether it was out of my office or regional office.

PS: Is this the time right to tackle the legalisation of abortion in Namibia?
DG: We are ahead of the discussion. Before we get to have that discussion, let’s start with what kind of quality services are available to women so that they don’t have to come to the crossroad of having the decision of having an abortion. This means she should have access to information, quality reproductive health services, and easy access to contraceptives. Why is it that today, young people on the streets can get someone to get them a pill that is abortive rather than to be able to get a contraceptive? There is a fundamental challenge there. I would want us to go back to the drawing board and have a discussion on what it is that’s needed so we don’t put a woman or a girl at a crossroad of having to decide whether she wants to have an abortion or not. But if she gets there, then let’s discuss what it means for this woman; if we don’t offer the services in a safe and contained environment, I can guarantee you that woman is going to show up at one of the facilities and it is not going to be a pretty sight.

We get calls from clinics requesting for medication and a nurse once informed us that within a week –imagine one week – she had seen eight girls with babies halfway down their legs. That is heart-wrenching for the girl and the health provider who is seeing this happening to young people in the country.

PS: What do you make of the available policies that partially allow abortion?
DG: We need to look at them because there are instances that abortion is legal in this country but ask yourself: what are the non-policy issues that prevent women from getting an abortion when she needs it and it’s within the law? 
Why is it not happening? Because there are so many other pieces that are put in but not policy-related, so they should not be there? For a woman, there is rape; why does she need a sign off from two or three doctors before she can get a safe and legal abortion when the law says she can get an abortion. Maybe we need to relook at some of those things that are not policy-related but are preventing women from getting the services as well.

PS: The President spoke of inclusivity – one Namibia house – and right now, the youth have not been feeling like they have a place at the table. How important is youth representation?
DG: Namibia has a youthful population; it is truly your asset. It is the asset of this nation. You cannot, under any circumstances, propel a country into sustainable development when you are not doing investment in the human capital. The human capital of this country resides with young people. 

As I embark on another mission, with my tenure here in Namibia that has ended, it is my true hope that Namibia will continue to appreciate this youthful population and that it will make the right investment in health, education, access to information, social protection and all the things that we allow these young people to fulfil their potential because then and only will this country see what sustainable development feels like.

2020-10-30  Paheja Siririka

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