WATCH: United Nations Women General Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka delivers a speech to policymakers about WHO’s guidance for women and girls on reproductive health and gender equality.
While women’s rights advocates and policymakers continue to fight for greater access to reproductive health, sometimes there is an unequal playing field.
Women and girls around the world face underemployment, discrimination and sexual violence. Even more dangerous are deaths from unsafe abortions in developing countries, such as the 20,000 girls who die every year and make it to adulthood before this, according to UN Women and a 2018 report.
All too often, women like 24-year-old Uitalia Namilaki are unaware of the services that are available. Namilaki survived an attempted abortion in Uganda about two years ago, during which she says she was kidnapped and raped. After being treated for her injury, she received no proper help or assistance for providing other contraceptive services for herself.
She feared that, if the trauma is not healed, she could face a harsh sentence if her case is brought to court.
“When you talk to women who have gone through this, especially after an emergency, they say they were not able to get proper help to get assistance,” explained Dr. Belam Akello, head of reproductive health at the Uganda Police Service. “Because they are afraid of anything.”
Namilaki, Akello and many other Ugandans are speaking out about the disparity in access to contraception.
In October, for example, more than 30,000 gathered to speak out at Uganda’s annual talks on women’s rights and reproductive health in Kampala, with a heated debate occurring at the end on the need for Uganda to license clinics or train medical professionals on how to help victims of sexual assault or harassment in this way.
Without proper assistance, some victims are ostracized or locked out of society in as a result of their experiences.
“They feel that the women who have survived sexual violence or have been abused are not cared for,” said Agnes Kahama, executive director of the Centre for Youth Development in Uganda. “They feel they are not just failed by the public institutions but also by the men in society.”
When women and girls are treated in this way, though, it reinforces the patriarchal social order that has existed for years. Women often feel that they are simply not valued in a society that does not value women or girls and as such, could be in danger of the negative consequences of speaking out, or even the consequences of being unprosecuted or having false charges against them pressed against them.
But as the Ugandan government was hoping for a cultural shift in some communities, one of the first attempts to address the death of young women caused by unsafe abortions and attempted abortions was simply not a good idea.
Using YouTube to raise awareness about forced abortions, Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda unveiled an online tool, which invited Ugandans to submit videos about how a woman got pregnant in an effort to help the court system process sexual assault and coercion cases, though only with an eye to pressuring rape victims to get abortions.