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African Commission on
Human and Peoples' Rights

Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, on the Occasion of the "Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion”


On this day, 28 September 2022, in commemoration of the “ Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion,” the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission), through the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa (Special Rapporteur), Hon. Commissioner Janet R Sallah-Njie, urges State Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) to honor their commitments under the African Charter; and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol or Protocol), by decriminalising abortion in their respective countries.

September 28 of every year, represents an important date in recognising and reflecting on the journey of realising women’s right and access to reproductive health services and information. It is also a time to reflect on progress in implementing national, regional, and international laws, policies, and standards, that protect the rights of women and girls to have a quality reproductive health life, including standards prescribed in the Maputo Plan of Action; as well as the Campaign for the Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa.

While celebrating great achievements of the Maputo Protocol, the Special Rapporteur also recognises that more action is needed, to guarantee full enjoyment of the rights of women and girls on the continent. The Maputo Protocol, enshrines women's right to access comprehensive reproductive health care services and information on contraception, and safe abortion, without discrimination. It also obliges State Parties to create the legal, economic, and social conditions that enable women to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights with regard to family planning/contraception and safe abortion.

Thus far, 43 AU Member States have ratified the Maputo Protocol. The journey thus far is commendable and a true reflection of the spirit of the Union shared by African States in upholding and respecting women’s rights. We however acknowledge that many challenges persist, that hinder women and girls from attaining their full rights, including entrenched cultural and religious practices, exclusionary economic systems, low or lack of support for women candidates in politics and public life, as well as women's inability to own or inherit property. It is in this spirit that we urge the remaining Member States to ratify and implement the Maputo Protocol in its entirety, to ensure equality of rights for all African women and girls.

Despite many years of campaigns in Africa and the world advocating for the right to safe and legal abortion, the criminalisation of abortion continues in African countries. Criminal laws on abortion, which underline harassment, threats of arrest and imprisonment of women for reproductive health decisions, including on abortion are discriminatorily enforced and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable such as women and girls. Those who are poor, live in rural settings and lack access to education are at the highest risk of harassment, investigations, arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for procuring abortion, by law enforcement officials. In addition, due to fear of prosecution, women often delay or fail to seek treatment at public hospitals or clinics. These women are left vulnerable to unsafe abortion as they seek services in hiding, from unqualified persons and in places unequipped to offer safe abortion services, leading to preventable deaths and morbidities.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortion continues to be a public health crisis and one of the largest contributors of maternal mortality and morbidity in Africa, accounting for up to 30% of maternal deaths in many sub-Saharan countries. The WHO estimates that over 6 million unsafe abortions occur in Africa, resulting in 29,000 deaths and countless serious injuries and disabilities every year for African women and girls under the age 25. In April 2022, the WHO launched the updated Abortion Care Guidelines which reiterate that making abortion illegal or criminalisation of abortion, does not reduce abortion rates and neither does it deter women from having abortion. Instead, more women are pushed to the backstreet where they access unsafe abortions. It is time to put a stop to these unnecessary and preventable deaths.

Criminalising abortion violates many basic human rights, including the right to life, liberty, security, health, and freedom from torture. Criminal abortion laws discriminate based on sex, as they penalise a health service which is only utilized/needed by women. This situation is often grounded in colonial laws that have never been abolished and are supported by anti-women government policies, politicians, judges, and religious leaders. With women and girls mostly affected, the restriction on safe abortion and other forms of sexual and reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy and delivery care, maternal deaths have risen substantially in some parts of Africa, alongside violence against women.

The Special Rapporteur commends countries that have adopted equally innovative laws, policies, and other institutional mechanisms to advance women's human rights, including, Algeria, Benin, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Tunisia. The Special Rapporteur calls on State Parties to prioritise the lives and well-being of women and girls. In so doing, domesticating and fully implementing the Maputo protocol will ensure that barriers inhibiting women and girls from exercising their rights to bodily autonomy and making decisions attendant to their reproductive lives, including on access to safe abortion in line with the Protocol is imperative.

The Special Rapporteur continues to campaign for gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa by;  

· Calling on ALL AU Member States to decriminalise abortion in line with the Campaign launched by the Commission in 2016 to decriminalise abortion in Africa;

· Calling on ALL AU Member States that have not yet done so to ratify, domesticate and implement the Maputo Protocol;

· Calling on ALL AU Member States to intensify their efforts to ensure the full realisation of the rights of women in Africa by increasing the allocation of resources to facilitate training, equipping and supplies that will enhance access to health and reproductive health services for women; and

· Calling on ALL AU Member States to invest in technology driven health solutions to effectively expand and enhance access to Sexual Reproductive Health services especially in uncertain terms such as the COVID 19 Pandemic Era.

Hon. Commissioner Janet R Sallah-Njie

Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa