This week, Zimbabwe’s Registrar General, Mr Mudede, was quoted in national papers urging the Government of Zimbabwe to ban contraceptives. This is the second time in the past two months that he has commented on the subject of contraception having reportedly made similar remarks at an Africa Day event in May. While his earlier comments were targeted at the general populace and particularly women, his recent call was a specific call for Government to ban contraceptives.
Mudede argues that contraceptives have negative side-effects on women and that they are a ploy by powerful nations to retard population growth in Africa. It is not clear whether Mudede has been making these remarks in his personal or official capacity. Dealing exclusively with administrative matters like issuing passports, birth and death certificates, the Registrar General’s office has no mandate or expertise on the subject of contraceptives.
The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare (MOHCW) in Zimbabwe has stated that family planning saves the lives of women and children and promotes economic development. Whilst Mudede’s comments have incited controversial debates nationwide and on social platforms, the MOHCW has provided the following important facts which should inform debates:
– Family planning averts approximately 310,000 unintended pregnancies each year in Zimbabwe.
– Increasing the use of contraceptives in addition to existing family planning options will save the lives of 15, 000 mothers between 2014 and 2020. This will prevent an average of 2,100 maternal deaths per year.
– Family planning currently saves the lives of 4,300 children every year in Zimbabwe, by allowing couples to time pregnancies better and avoid high-risk pregnancies.
As a prominent, influential public figure Mudede’s remarks could encourage practices that impede access to contraceptives. As evidenced by the tragic events in the Mapingure case recently decided in the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, women already struggle to access contraceptives. In the Mapingure case a survivor of rape failed to access emergency contraceptives on time simply because public officials failed to ensure timeous access.
Whilst it cannot be disputed that some contraceptives cause side effects (as do other types of medication) and that some population control programmes introduced in developing countries have been controversial, it is absurd to argue that these factors justify a ban on contraceptives.
Access to family planning is a human rights issue. The Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees personal security of its citizens including allowing them the right to make their own decisions in matters of reproduction [article 52]. Mudede’s comments undermine human dignity which is underpinned by an understanding of respect for ones’ private life [article 51]. His comments are not in line with the spirit of the Constitution which obliges the Government of Zimbabwe to take positive measures to rectify gender discrimination and imbalance [article 17(2)].
A ban on contraceptives is a violation of women’s reproductive rights, the right to health and the right to life. Zimbabwe is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination which advocates for member states to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in all matters associated with marriage and family relationships. At a regional level Zimbabwe is a state party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights which realises the right to the protection of one’s integrity and life [article 4]. The Charter also calls upon member states to respect the family unit and protect it from harm [article 18]. Article 14 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa further urges State Parties to respect and promote the sexual and reproductive rights of women. It urges State Parties to ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health is respected and promoted, including a) the right to control their fertility; b) the right to decide whether to have children, the number of children and the spacing of children; c) the right to choose any method of contraception; … and g) the right to have family planning education.
Mr Mudede’s remarks are irresponsible and have already been interpreted to mean he is advocating for non-use of all contraceptives including condoms which could exacerbate Zimbabwe’s already alarming transmission of sexual disease and HIV statistics.
Banning contraceptives will also have social consequences as it will reinforce the relegation of women to the domestic sphere as child bearers and minders. It may negatively impact on women’s access to opportunities such as employment or educational development due to an unintended pregnancy, leading to economic disempowerment of women.
The Registrar General’s comments are unfortunate considering the importance of family planning for promoting women’s rights and development in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean Government has a duty to protect women’s sexual and reproductive self-determination by ensuring access to a wide range of acceptable and safe contraceptive methods and services. Also of importance is the duty to ensure that women get accurate information about their sexual and reproductive choices, as well as the duty to ensure that they are able to make decisions, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
This blog was written by Violet Aretha Dzingirai and Purity Bere who are on professional internships at SALC.