“I was scared to go to prison. I was worried about the number of years I would spend there. I was really scared.”
Unsafe abortion is a major issue in Zambia, and the consequences for women can be devastating. The law states that women seeking an abortion must obtain three doctors’ signatures, despite Zambia having only 1,500 doctors in a country of 16.2 million people.
Naomi Mwansa is 21-years-old, and lives with her mother and step-father in a compound in Zambia’s Mpika province. Having already dropped out of school to have her first child, when Naomi fell pregnant for a second time, aged 18, she felt she had no option but to take matters into her own hands.
“I knew I was breaking the law but I resorted to unsafe abortion because of pressure from my family. My parents said they would kick me out of the house unless I had an abortion. My boyfriend said that this would ruin his life and he would leave me unless I aborted. I became the example my family used when they talked about bad behaviour. Everyone said I would amount to nothing as I would never go back to school again.”
In desperation, Naomi tried to induce an abortion herself on three separate occasions. None of the methods she tried – drinking tea leaves, a stew of flowers, even taking 20 paracetamol – were effective. So Naomi decided she would visit a traditional herbalist in another compound, who she had heard could help girls with unwanted pregnancies.
“I knew I was breaking the law but I resorted to unsafe abortion because of pressure from my family. Everyone said I would amount to nothing as I would never go back to school again.”
She paid 70 Zambian Kwacha ($10), and in return the woman gave her some ‘medicine’ (a mixture of traditional herbs), with instructions to insert it into herself. “That evening I felt sick, and then the pregnancy came out. I did nothing; just sat. My mother was at work. The blood came out for three days. On the fourth day I was arrested.”
Alone with her decision, Naomi confided in a close friend. However, the issue of abortion is so stigmatized in Zambia that the friend immediately told the police what she had done. “It was 7pm and I was sleeping when I was woken up by torches. I heard a knock at the door and then the noise of people in my house. That’s when they took me to the police station.”
In February 2013, Naomi was sentenced to two years in prison for aborting a five months old pregnancy using traditional herbs. “I was scared to go to prison. I was worried about the number of years I would spend there. I was worried about how my child would fare since she was very young. I was really scared.”
Naomi found prison life difficult. Aside from being deprived of her liberty, she missed her daughter terribly. She felt totally alone. Her boyfriend refused to visit after he saw her selling cabbages in a prison uniform. Only her parents would visit occasionally.
“I want to start a small business, so I can raise my child and send her to school.”
Naomi was released from jail in June 2015, after serving one year and four months of her sentence. After her release, she was determined to start her own business and started looking for small jobs that would help her to raise the capital she needed. Naomi knew that falling pregnant again would mean the end of her dreams.
One of Naomi’s friends told her about Marie Stopes Zambia, and she went to meet one of the programme’s community mobilisers. They asked Naomi if she had ever heard of contraception or used it before, and she said no. The community mobiliser then took the time to explain what contraception was and the different methods available.
After some consideration, Naomi chose to be fitted with a contraceptive implant that would protect her from unwanted pregnancy for up to five years.