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How is the media talking about abortion?

The way that abortion is portrayed in the media plays an important role in how people view abortions and can have a significant social and political impact. News coverage is one of the most powerful influences on public opinion, and, by extension, national and local policy agendas. By taking a closer look at how the media talks about abortion, The MAMA Network wanted to can get a better understanding of the language used, the ways that abortion is framed, and how it either contributes to abortion stigma or helps normalize abortion. Unfortunately, abortion is too often written about in the media in ways that are highly stigmatized, filled with inaccurate information, and framing it as a moral dilemma. Due to how little research has been done on how news outlets portray abortion, MAMA, along with several partners, set out to explore how the media in West Africa reports on abortion. We looked at 60 articles from media outlets across West Africa, published between 2015 and 2020, and here’s what we found. 

All articles had a clear stance on abortion – either the author(s) supported abortion rights and services or they opposed it. In articles that opposed abortion, journalists relied on heavily religious or moral language to make their argument, using words such as ‘scandalous’, ‘sin’, and ‘anti-biblical’, and described abortion seekers and people who perform abortions in negative ways. Articles against abortion were also filled with inaccurate information and misleading statistics. These articles drew heavily on the perspectives of religious officials and traditional community leaders and talked about abortion as a religious and moral problem. In some of these articles, journalists argued that abortion was against traditional values, and is a form of population control imposed by the West. Articles that pose abortion as a moral issue ignore the lived realities of people who have had abortions throughout history. People of all religions, ages, and cultures have abortions. These articles also fail to recognize that abortion is a central part of reproductive justice:  people’s right to choose to have children or not, to be supported in their decisions, and to parent in safe and sustainable environments. Abortion does not stand alone but is deeply connected to other issues, including poverty, migration, climate change, domestic violence, and so on.

On the contrary, publications that were supportive of abortion tended to use more academic language, referring to medicine, public health, and science. They drew their information from international scientific, research, or medical institutions, such as Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization. These articles used statistics and public health indicators to support their arguments and quoted both international and local health care professionals, researchers, and activists. These articles talked about abortion as a public health issue and discussed the importance of guaranteeing abortion as a human right.

The findings from this research tell us many things. The fact that we could only find 60 articles about abortion in a five-year period tells us that in general, there is very little coverage of abortion in the media. The little coverage that does exist continues to portray abortion as a highly polarised issue, perpetuating the idea that abortion is a matter of public and moral debate and not a necessary and common healthcare procedure and event in people’s lives. These articles dramatized abortion statistics, and in general used negative language to describe abortion, which in turn spreads fear and misunderstandings of the safety of abortion and the consequences of unsafe abortion. Furthermore, the voices and perspectives of people who have abortions continue to be left out of the conversation. In doing so, the media fails to show the diversity and nuance of abortion experiences and instead portrays abortion in simplistic and inaccurate ways.

The media plays an important role in disseminating information and shaping public views on abortion. So how can the media be better allies in the fight for abortion rights?

  • Frame abortion as normal part of our lives and health. This includes using evidence-based, up-to-date, accurate information from reliable sources.
  • Collaborations between the media and abortion advocates, in order to lift the voices of local experts and learn from each other.
  • Centre abortion seekers’ experiences and perspectives.Media coverage should reflect the complexities and diversity of abortion experiences, showing that abortion is a common experience and that there is no one single abortion story. This includes ensuring that there is representation of women and people who have abortions as the storytellers. We invite the media to become our allies in the fight for the destigmatisation and decriminalisation of abortion.
  • Combat misinformation. The media has a responsibility to provide factual, unbiased information. When it comes to abortion, that means ensuring that the language you use is clear and neutral, accurate, and non-judgemental. Ensure that the sources being used are reliable.

For more information on this research, please take a look at our full report.

The pandemic as a portal: Lessons from our research on COVID-19 impact

It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 has caused disruptions in our work and our lives.  Lockdowns, gathering restrictions, and a global shift in attention towards the pandemic has affected almost every aspect of society and has left other needs stranded. Abortion access, among other reproductive needs, has been sidelined and governments have failed to adopt measures to ensure continuity of services in the formal healthcare system.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 exacerbated the existing sexual and reproductive health needs that people had before the pandemic, such as the need for contraception, menstrual hygiene products, treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and abortion care. The government’s failure to ensure continued access to essential, time-sensitive medical care during the pandemic has caused interruptions to abortion services and aggravated longstanding barriers to safe and legal abortion. The barriers to abortion access affect all people, but disproportionately impact vulnerable groups, such as youth, sex workers, people with low income, and those living in rural areas. 

In 2020 the MAMA Network sought to understand and document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the network’s member organizations and their work. The data from our study showed that many organizations’ budgets were not prepared to handle changes that COVID forced them to make. Additionally, physical distancing and gathering limitations downsized in-person activities. Working from home and decreased access to commodities also challenged organizations’ abilities to meet their intended programmatic goals.

Despite the growing need for abortion care, the pandemic saw a decrease in access. Many countries saw a decrease in the stock of abortion pills in pharmacies, healthcare facilities, and other suppliers. Many clinics that provide abortions closed due to the pandemic, and others considered abortion a ‘non-essential’ healthcare service and stopped accepting visits. Furthermore, people faced other challenges in accessing and taking abortion pills. Affording pills also became a problem, with many people losing economic security during the pandemic. It also became increasingly difficult for people to take abortion pills at home due to the lack of privacy that came with lockdowns, quarantine, and working from home.

Organizations and activists whose work is dedicated to expanding access to safe abortion services witnessed firsthand the effects of COVID-19 on the provision of abortion and faced new and unforeseeable challenges in meeting the needs of their community. Over the past year, MAMA Network has reached out to several of its members to better understand how organizations have been affected by the pandemic, and the ways they overcame challenges. 

One of the biggest challenges that organizations faced throughout the pandemic was the lack of funding. Many organizations’ budgets were not prepared to handle the changes that COVID-19 forced them to make, compounded by reduced funding from donors. The pandemic brought on new costs that had not been budgeted for, such as remote work costs, safety materials, and costs related to transitioning to online platforms. Many organizations also lost staff during the pandemic, mostly due to a lack of funding to pay salaries. Physical distancing and gathering restrictions highly impacted in-person activities. Organizations that conduct in-person outreach, such as workshops and community meetings, had to decrease the size of events or cancel altogether. Shifting to remote work also brought challenges, with many organizations lacking necessities required to work from homes, such as reliable internet access, computers and phones for home use, and the lack of privacy required to talk about abortion issues in countries where abortion is legally restrictive and stigmatized. 

Notwithstanding these challenges, activists developed creative and resourceful ways to continue their work and ensure continued access to abortion information and services. Organizations adapted their activities to meet COVID-19 safety guidelines, by providing personal safety equipment, implementing physical distancing, limiting the size of gatherings, providing one-on-one appoints, and doing outreach, and were thus able to resume their in-person visits and provide abortion support. Many organizations moved their programming and activities to online spaces when the pandemic hit. Organizations improved their websites, used social media to advertise their services, and utilized online chat platforms to provide information. Hotlines became a critical resource for safe abortion and sexual health information during the pandemic. Many organizations took the opportunity to turn their efforts inwards, by focusing on training staff and increasing their operational capacity. 

However, our report shows that despite all the efforts done to overcome the challenges brought on during the pandemic, there is no amount of resilience that can trumple the lack of structural change that is needed. For many organizations that are members of the MAMA Network, lack of funding and restrictive budgets have been one of the biggest hurdles to continuing work throughout the pandemic. Such limited funding prevents organizations from implementing solutions to unforeseen challenges and stifles opportunities for creativity and innovation. Activists on the ground are best suited to recognize the needs of their communities, and find solutions to meet those needs, and should thus be granted the trust and autonomy to do the work in the way they see fit. 

Inspired by Arundhati Roy we believe that the pandemic is indeed a portal and we are ready to imagine a new world and fight for it.

Engaging Female Sex Workers in Covid-19 Fight Project – CESOCODE Malawi

The bitter impact of the COVID 19 pandemic outbreak has affected the lives of Sex Workers in Malawi. The novel coronavirus has exacerbated the challenges of sex workers making them even more marginalized and vulnerable in the community. The sex workers compelled to live on debts with extremely high interest rates which in fact very far beyond their capacities.

Against this background Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE) with support from Urgent Fung Africa, is conducting a six-month project to protect sex workers from the COVID-19 pandemic by distributing Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) like face masks, hand sanitizers, taped water buckets, and soaps. We are also reaching out to these sex workers with Sexual Reproductive Health services and information like condom distribution and safe abortion counseling and referrals. The goal of this project is to protect sex workers from contracting COVID 19 by creating enough awareness of COVID 19 preventive measures and protocols.

A beneficiary received a taped water bucket, hand sanitizers, soap, and face masks.

In addition, the project is extending its services by providing sexual reproductive health services like condom distribution and safe abortion information to enable Sex workers to have access to Sexual Reproductive Health services and information during the COVID-19 pandemic when many health facilities are closed and lockdowns and services are limited.

 We are conducting one to one safe abortion counseling sessions with sex workers through counseling experts.

We conducting door-to-door condom distribution to sex workers to prevent them from unplanned pregnancies.

We conducted a COVID-19 prevention training for sex workers to provide awareness on preventive measures and protocols of COVID 19 enforced by the Government like hand washing, maintaining physical distance, wearing masks, and so on.

A group photo of the sex workers with their COVID-19 PPEs received.

MAMA Network asks UN Experts to take action on Self Managed Abortion

In a session with IPAS, CRR, and FIGO alongside other human rights advocates and health workers, the MAMA Network was invited to speak with UN treaty bodies and address existing barriers in accessing self Managed Abortions. Jedidah Maina who represented the MAMA Network asked that UN Experts urge member states to completely decriminalize all abortions.

As MAMA, we believe and understand that abortion with pills creates a universal opportunity for safe abortion and that access to abortion with pills also enforces several human rights.

‘There continues to be cultural taboos that prevent open dialogue in homes and in school and sometimes our laws and policies do not mirror the lived realities of women/girls… the law criminalizes self-care/abortion management… We [Mama network] increase access to medical abortion as a safe, effective medical procedure outside a clinical setting… we think this is a revolution, and women have this in their hand – it has the potential to make so many abortions in our continent safe and that States need to adapt their laws to reflect this lived reality of people who have abortions.’ Jedidah Maina (MAMA Network coordinator)

The Take away from the discussion tasks UN Experts to raise in-depth conversations with governments to assess their progress on ensuring safe abortion. These questions range from the legality of abortion in specific countries, the availability of misoprostol and mifepristone which are essential medicines in reproductive health and clarifications on regulations surrounding telemedicine.

The MAMA Network has established reproductive health and safe abortion hotlines / helplines in 13 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. 97% of unsafe abortions occur in Sub-saharan Africa and the risk of dying from an unsafe abortion is highest in the region. Our helplines operate 24//7 to help people who need information, guidance and support.

“Beyond Our Society’s Eyes” – Zambia’s abortion reality according to CTYA

The issue of unsafe abortions is actually beyond what appears apparent to the naked eyes in the Zambian society which is praised for being a Christian society. Approximately 23% of incomplete abortions in Zambia are among women younger than 20 years, and 30-50% of gynecological admissions at the University Teaching Hospital result from unsafe abortion-related complications (Standards and Guidelines for Reducing Unsafe Abortion Morbidity and Mortality in Zambia-Ministry of Health). For every 1,000 women ages 15-29 in Zambia, there are over 30 deaths per year resulting from unsafe abortion, thousands more suffer injuries.

Findings on girls aged 13 -19 years old aimed at describing adolescent girls’ circumstances underlying the decision to resort to unsafe induced abortions found that most of the girls who resorted to unsafe abortions were single, in school, nulliparous with inadequate information on contraceptives. It was further found that the adolescent girl’s reasons for resorting to an unsafe abortion were fear of stigma and discrimination due to premarital conception such as parental disapproval, expulsion from school, and abandonment by the person responsible for the pregnancy.

In 2019, Contact Trust Youth Association (CTYA) conducted a mapping exercise to explore abortion stigma, its root causes, and related values, norms, and culture in the community in order to identify and document important community characteristics and issues that need to be addressed. Although most interviewed girls and young women were well aware of available medical abortion services in health facilities, they preferred using unsafe methods to going to clinics as they felt altitudes among health practitioners were a ‘let-down’.

“I tried drinking undiluted Mazoe drink and Muzwezi (local plant) boiled water but the pregnancy did not come out but left me sick for a couple of weeks, I could not come to the clinic because I was shy and have heard nurses shout at people before they can attend to them.” (Focus group discussion participant).

There is good evidence to suggest that adolescents (10–24 years) are at a greater risk of experiencing ‘illegal’ or ‘unsafe’ invasive procedures than older women, and are thus worthy of special attention. Illegal abortion in adolescents is linked to earlier onset of sexual activity, earlier pregnancy, and greater ignorance of contraception as compared with women seeking legal abortions.

Access to safe abortion in rural areas amidst COVID-19

VIAC and R2G are both MAMA member organizations advocating for access to safe abortion information and for access to safe abortion services in rural communities. The COVID19 pandemic has exposed many barriers for women in accessing safe abortion, especially women in rural areas. Lack of access to information and the lack of access to services has negatively impacted rural communities.

Availability and distribution of abortion care facilities can influence women’s access services, especially in rural areas. Existing community stigma makes it difficult for women to access services or to seek safe abortion information.

“In the rural areas, the health centers closer to women do not offer abortion services and the providers working in the centers are neighbors to the women in the community. This makes it hard for women and girls to approach them for support even if it’s safe referral support. There is that fear”. Says a representative from R2G

In Cameroon, those who seek abortion services in rural areas don’t know their rights to abortion. VIAC runs a reproductive health hotline where women can call to get information and counseling on self-managed abortion with pills. To reduce maternal mortality, grassroots organizations need to empower women to know their rights by making information and services accessible in their vicinities.

“The advocacy for abortion services in rural communities is very insignificant. There is a need to strengthen community-based organization alliance for more of better advocacy programs” Says a representative from VIAC.

To strengthen grassroots efforts, the Mama network is providing support to organizations working or at the frontline in community advocacy on access to abortion information and self-managed abortion information.

For access to safe aboriton information and access to services, reac out to any of the MAMA hotlines in the region: https://mamanetwork.org/network/helplines/

Regional efforts to advance access to safe abortion services

In December 2020, with the ease of restrictions on movement and adherence to safety measures, the Reproductive Health Network in Kenya held it’s 4th Annual Science Conference on Youth & Adolescents SRHR with the theme “Adressing the three zeros by prioritizing adolescents and young people’s SRHR. The MAMA Network presented an abstract to share practices and lessons learned in ensuring access to safe abortion regionally.

The risk of unintended pregnancies among adolescent girls and young women is greater due to the global pandemic of COVID19. Integrated interventions for Adolescent girls and young women with efforts to address early and/or unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, sexually transmitted infections, and combat violence against women and girls ensure that adolescent girls and young women have the power to make decisions over their own lives. With the current world order, the need for information and access to safe services is primordial to combat unsafe abortions and ensure access to reproductive health services.

The MAMA Network supported the launch of 11 hotlines, with 6 launched in these times of the pandemic. The hotlines have played a significant role to give adolescent girls and young women access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information, in particular safe abortion and contraceptives.

To strengthen leadership at the grassroots level and facilitate networks of local and regional activists to work towards a shared goal a two (2) weeks training program on hotlines followed by weeks of mentorship designed by TICAH and WHW supports member organizations to launch hotlines in their community. The first 6 months of the lockdown and COVID19 restrictions worldwide saw 9 organizations with ready resources for implementation virtually trained and 6 hotlines launched. The 9 participants came from Kenya, Liberia, Congo Brazzaville, DRC Congo, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Gambia.

Hotlines Save Lives – Join us this September 28th

This September 28th to commemorate the international day of access to safe and legal abortion, the MAMA Network will run a campaign to highlight the importance and impact of hotlines in these times of global pandemic. Join the conversation on our twitter @themamanetwork and make sure your voice is heard using the hashtags #HotlinesSaveLives and #ImanageMyAbortion.

There is a growing need for reproductive health hotlines for women to access information on contraceptives, safe abortion and self-managed abortions. Since March 2020, The MAMA Network has launched 6 new hotlines in 6 different countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Cameroon, South Africa, Liberia and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). To date, there are 11 MAMA Hotlines across sub-Saharan Africa giving information on contraceptives and safe abortion options.

The pandemic has made access to reproductive health information and services difficult globally. Because of the restrictions on movement and limitations to reproductive health services, we have seen – especially in low- and middle-income countries – a significant surge in unwanted pregnancies and unmet needs for contraceptives.

Reproductive health hotlines provide callers with accurate information, tele-counseling, and referrals to quality care. This saves women’s lives and reduces unsafe abortion in countries where abortion is restricted or criminalized. Hotlines promote women’s autonomy and put power into women’s hands to make the right choice for their reproductive health.

Access to safe abortion remains a priority and an essential service. Across MAMA Hotlines we have seen an increase in women taking back their power and make the best choices for themselves free of stigma or coercion.

In the months of January to June, we recorded more than twenty thousand calls for safe abortion access across 5 hotlines at the time. Hotlines have redefined access to information and services for women living in developing countries, and that’s why this #Sept28 we invite you to check MAMA’s Hotlines and our new video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Br79lhnd1s&t=2s) highlighting that #HotlinesSaveLives!

Video testimonies on the effectiveness of abortion with pills

An estimated 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Even in countries where the law allows abortion under limited circumstances, it is likely that few women are able to obtain a safe, legal procedure.
Countries in African can be classified into 6 categories, according to the reasons to which abortion is legally permitted.
Between November 2018 and April 2019, the MAMA Network conducted a study with community leaders and health workers in five sub-Saharan Africa countries (DR Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Tanzania) to assess safe abortion activism, and the impact of the safe abortion services provided by MAMA organizations in each of their communities.
Community members expressed a preference for medication abortion over other abortion methods due to effectiveness, privacy, cost, and safety.

“The pills are much better because women don’t have to go to a public hospital to have the abortion. Hospitals have too many people which eliminate privacy. With pills, a woman can do everything in her bedroom at an early stage of the pregnancy, according to the advice she received during training. If all the advice is followed, the woman is protected and the matter remains private.” (Community leader, Malawi).

“Abortion with surgery is expensive…abortion with pills like I said is affordable, it is more effective according to the WHO standards and I have seen ladies who used it and they came to testify that they used it, it works and they are back again. For me, I would go for that pill.” (Community health worker, Nigeria).

Unsafe abortion continues to be a persistent public health problem that accounts for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths globally. In East Africa nearly 1 in 5 maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortions. Abortion with pills or abortion with Mifeprostone or/and misoprostol is safe as per WHO guidelines.

MAY 28th – Abortion Beyond LockDown (The Campaign)

May 28 is the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, which for over 30 years, women’s rights advocates and allies in the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) movement worldwide have commemorated in diverse ways. Year after year, women, girls, advocates and allies have continued to take action and stand up for sexual and reproductive rights for what they are: an indivisible and inalienable part of our human rights.

On this day, the MAMA Network ran an online campaign to convey the message that ”Abortion is Essential” and Abortion is still an essential service amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. Between May 25th and 28th MAMA Network members engaged in an online Advocacy Campaign for the International Day of Action for Women’s Health with the hashtag #AbortionBeyondLockdown MAMA believes that no laws, no diplomas, no stigma and no pandemic should be gatekeepers to reproductive justice.

The COVID19 pandemic has placed many barriers to access abortion and
exposed the unnecessary requirements set by the laws in place. Still aligned to MAMA’s main objective to expand access to services and information about abortion with the pills, MAMA Members were in solidarity to share the message that self-managed abortion is safe, effective, discrete, and can be done at home.

  • 13 organizations from 9 countries participated in the campaign.
  • A total of 53 solidarity images and 3 solidarity videos of the campaign were received.
  • The total reach for the campaign was 1,575 with the most active countries being Nigeria and Kenya.
Let’s connect on Twitter: https://twitter.com/themamanetwork