Female sex workers speak up for abortion rights in Uganda

In the past few years, abortion rights have gotten significant global recognition. We’ve seen countries in the Global North and Global South make legal advances, albeit with some restrictions on factors like pregnancy gestation period, which still limits women’s autonomy. 

Nevertheless, the fact that abortion is a subject of discussion, even where society still doesn’t acknowledge its health, economic, political and autonomy benefits, is positive. It is vital to underscore that it is not in the closets anymore!  

In Uganda particularly, abortion discussions are a little bit more open. Unfortunately, these conversations still tend to be negative, stigmatizing, and judgmental against those advancing and practicing bodily autonomy and abortion rights. 

As a feminist network of grassroots Female Sex Worker (FSW) led groups we know that sex workers are disproportionately affected by unsafe abortion.  

Despite the fact that abortion is 14 times safer than giving birth, in Uganda, an estimated 16-18 women die every day due to pregnancy-related causes, of which 33% are due to unsafe abortion. 

And female sex workers in Uganda are particularly at risk of unsafe abortions. They are at the intersections of highly contested issues regarding gender, sex work, abortion, social class and so on.  

So, inspired by France’s recent milestone in enshrining the freedom to have an abortion in her constitution, and to mark the Global Day of Action to Destigmatize Abortions, we seized the opportunity to explore the perspectives of women, particularly female sex workers, on abortion rights, choice, and its recognition as a constitutional right in Uganda. Throughout the month of March, we carried out discussions with FSWs on the quest for reproductive justice in Uganda. 

For these women, access to safe abortion services represents a fundamental aspect of reproductive justice. 

Reflecting on recent developments in Uganda, respondents note positive shifts in access to abortion services. They attribute these changes to the role of post-abortion care projects in health facilities and communities which support women with abortion related complications.  They stressed that offering a range of safe options not only reduces medical risks but also reduces the societal stigma and legal repercussions associated with underground procedures. 

Central to their beliefs is the explicit assertion that the right to choose rests solely with the pregnant person. They emphasize bodily autonomy, asserting that decisions regarding abortion should be left to the person carrying the pregnancy, without external interference or judgment. 

They stated that it is a matter of personal responsibility, where individuals are empowered to make informed choices about their bodies and lives. 

There was a resounding call from FSWs for increased advocacy to destigmatize abortion.  

They emphasized the need to advocate openly, akin to campaigns for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. To eliminate the need for secrecy around abortion which forces marginalized women into unsafe abortions. By sharing stories, statistics, and case studies of marginalized women facing these challenges, they believe we can sway legislators and stakeholders towards recognizing the necessity of safe abortion services.  

FSWs highlighted the importance of showcasing the positive impact of safe abortion services, not only in saving lives but also in reducing maternal mortality rates and contributing to the economy.  

When asked what they think about France’s move to add abortion to the constitution, one woman from Kampala said: “What France did is a gift to all of us women, not only those in France.” She added, “In a way, it is a sign for the rest of the world that it is possible to protect women and guarantee reproductive rights by enshrining them into the constitution”.  

When we shared other inspiring examples from the Green Wave in Mexico and Colombia, another FSW resounded: “They are all doing it for all of us women, we celebrate and win with them all”. 

Looking ahead, remaining hopeful and dreaming big, we envision a Uganda where abortion is recognised as a constitutional right. 

While France’s case is unique, as a grassroots abortion rights movement, we benchmark good practices and are filled with hope that we are moving forward.  

The FSWs we spoke to anticipate a reduction in unsafe abortion procedures. Moreover, they foresee a society where reproductive health is prioritised, leading to better outcomes for women and families alike.  

Their calls for advocacy, legal reform, and destigmatization resonate deeply, emphasizing the urgent need for comprehensive support and recognition of reproductive autonomy. As we continue to navigate these complex issues, it is imperative that we centre and amplify the voices of those most affected. Working towards a future where all individuals have the right to make informed choices about their bodies and lives. 

By Resty Magezi K., Esther Chandiru, and Jane Tushabe at the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC), a SAAF grantee partner in Uganda. 

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