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It was a fellow school mate who convinced Jenipher, 19 at the time, to have unprotected sex. He would marry her, he promised. Yet, when she was in the third month of the resulting pregnancy, he denied all involvement and left Jenipher to deal with the situation herself. A traditional healer, in a remote location, seemed to offer an easy escape. On what happened next, she says: “I needed to help others, so they don’t go through what I went through.”
The healer offered her traditional herbs to abort the pregnancy, free of charge. It worked. The pregnancy was terminated, but at a high cost. Jenipher experienced extreme pains. Yet, the next day she went to school like every other day, as she was too afraid to seek medical attention and explain what happened.
Jenipher, from the Mangochi district in Malawi, underwent the painful consequences of an unsafe abortion in silence. Until the discomfort drove her to confide in her best friend who eventually helped her to seek the medical care she needed. Now, Jenipher is a living testimony for young women in her village. As a champion for sexual and reproductive health and rights, she stresses the importance of using contraceptives and making use of essential, existing, sexual health facilities.
Healthcare as a right
“I was afraid of revealing my story to a doctor. But with the help of a peer educator, I was assisted well. It made me happy, because I realised that I have rights like everyone else even though I chose to abort my pregnancy.”
Jenipher could not handle the pain anymore. She confided in her best friend, Memory, telling her about the unintended pregnancy, the traditional herbs and the pain they had caused. It so happened Memory was friends with Victor, a peer educator. That week, they met.
Images above: Victor hands out pamphlets at a busy intersection in his village. For his advocacy for sexual and reproductive health, Victor has been a victim of verbal slurs from religious and cultural hardliners accusing him of corrupting their community. Victor travels to surrounding villages to attend public gatherings where he publicly speaks about sexual and reproductive health issues.
“I was afraid to go to hospital, even though my health status required me to. I knew that to abort is against the law.”
Jenipher received comprehensive abortion care at Mangochi District Hospital. She underwent a manual vacuum aspiration to clear her uterus. Thankfully, she was able to go home to recover and after a month, she was fully recuperated. After her recovery, peer educator Victor visited her again. This time he stressed the importance of contraceptives and discouraged her to be scared of medical personnel. Only trained medical staff can help in such situations.
Victor told her healthcare is a right, and that all healthcare personnel knew this, and so he convinced her to go to the local hospital. Victor was right. Abortions are not legal in Malawi, but the country’s constitution does state that everyone has the right to healthcare.
Here, Victor teaches young people about sexual and reproductive health and rights from his home, where he has built a classroom.
“Teaching sexual health and rights is very important, because by informing young people on what happens as they grow, the challenges they can meet, and the measures they can take to be on the safe side, we help young people make good decisions with regards to their sexual and reproductive health.”
Unintended pregnancies, and consequently unsafe abortions, are not uncommon in the Mangochi District. One of the causes is transactional sex. It’s a common practice for girls and young women to trade sex for fish on the river banks.
Radio shows are seen as a good way to access young people in hard-to-reach areas. Here, we see Mathews, a field officer with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHHR), in an open discussion on sexual and reproductive health rights issues, despite the taboo.
“Parents still have problems teaching these issues to their children. Radio programmes come in to address that challenge for them, although this does not mean that they relieve them completely of the duty to inform their children.”
The Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) clinic does not conduct abortions for its patients who require the service. There are no public records on safe abortions, and doctors cannot talk about the procedure. The regressive laws also mean there is a lack of modern equipment to help those in need.
Steven, 40, a nurse at Family Planning Association of Malawi clinic, washes his hands before attending to a patient. FPAM clinic does not conduct abortions due to the laws of the country; patients are referred to Mangochi District Hospital. “There are no public records for safe abortions and doctors cannot speak publicly about this service.”
Abortions can’t take place at the family planning clinic and medical services remain below par. 26-year-old peer educator Victor continues working to educate those in need of services, such as survivor Jenipher. In his community, he is shunned by some. They accuse him of corrupting the community and he has been the victim of verbal slurs from religious or cultural hardliners. It doesn’t deter him.
Thanks to Victor’s help and the medical attention she received, Jenipher recovered completely. She successfully finished her education. Now, despite some backlash in the community, Jenipher and Victor are both sexual and reproductive health educators. They initiated a campaign to sensitise young people in their villages about safe abortions and related sexual health services.
“Victor’s help supported me to safeguard my life, because at that time I wasn’t able to go to the hospital and seek medical attention. Because of my experience, I decided to talk to others on sexual and reproductive rights, so they can make informed decisions. I encourage people not to seek unsafe abortions, but rather to try and find a well-trained health worker, tell them the problem and ask for help.”
Images above: An exercise book belonging to Jenipher. Jenipher, dressed in her old school uniform, stands at the door of her rented room. Jenipher at her local market
Jenipher’s story is part of Get Up Speak Out, a five-year programme working to improve the (knowledge of) rights and sexual health of young people in seven countries. The programme is led by Rutgers and implemented in collaboration with: Aidsfonds; CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality; Dance4Life; IPPF; and, Simavi, as well as with six alliance partners in-country. The SRHR Alliance in Malawi is the country partner driving the implementation of this project.