By Thakane Shale
For a 27-year-old *Rethabile Mokoaleli, the possibility of dying during an abortion is a gruesome thought but one she is prepared to face in order to terminate her unplanned pregnancy in a country where the practice remains both illegal and taboo.
In a recent interview with the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (MNNCIJ), Rethabile confesses to have undergone four illegal abortions in her lifetime and narrates how she nearly lost her life due to severe loss of blood after being “forced by circumstances” to solicit the help of an unlicensed “doctor.”
Abortion in Lesotho is criminalised by Section 45 of the Penal Code Act of 2010 which provides that any person who willingly causes or induces the termination of a pregnancy commits a criminal offence, save for when administered by a registered medical practitioner to protect the health of the expectant mother, in instances where the unborn child would have severe mental defects and when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.
Rethabile says she is fully aware of the illegality of her actions and that in instances where one is pregnant as a result of rape she can get a legal termination. She, however, adds, “we all know how the police treat you when you go to report a rape, the invasiveness and sometimes outright mockery and disdain…!”
This, she says, is why when she fell pregnant after being raped by an ex-boyfriend, in one of the four instances, she chose not to report the matter but aborted the foetus.
“I chose to keep the matter to myself because I had already been humiliated enough by the rape and the thought of suffering more humiliation at the hands of the police was too much to bear honestly, so I decided to keep quiet”.
While ghastly, Rethabile’s story is not isolate. One has only to walk down the Kingsway Street in Maseru to see poles littered with flyers freely advertising “quick and painless” abortions.
One such a victim of the so called quick and painless abortions is 21-year-old *Palesa Mohloai.
Palesa told the MNNCIJ having fallen pregnant while she was 20 and deciding she was not ready for a child, she sought help from a friend, who then connected her to a South Africa based abortionist advertising in Lesotho.
“The procedure was fairly simple, I was given pills to insert in my privates but was not told of the side effects or even the amount of bleeding to expect. So even when I started to bleed a little too much after taking the pills I did not bother to seek immediate medical help,” Palesa told the MNNCIJ in a recent interview.
It was only after she collapsed and, through the assistance of her sister, was admitted at the Queen ’Mamohato Memorial Hospital (Tšepong), that she realised the repercussions. “The treatment I received at Tšepong saved my life,” she said.
Palesa was hospitalised for several weeks at Tšepong and had to resign from her job as a shop assistant in the middle of the ordeal, she said.
A recent independent investigation by the MNNCIJ team has uncovered that one of the renowned abortionist in Maseru was a certain Zimbabwean national (names withheld) operating a dingy surgery (name withheld) in one of the office spaces at Ha Thetsane.
The doctor styles himself an expert in sexual and reproductive health. The MNNCIJ team took weeks to observe his clinic receiving an influx of clients and that he was almost always fully booked.
Upon a disguised visit, our team was surprised at how quick and easy it was for one to secure abortion services from the man, once you finally meet with him.
The doctor opened up to our disguised female reporter, even implying there were several Basotho abortionists who could help her.
“I don’t find it comfortable that Basotho want to kill their babies…. And believe me all Basotho come to me (for abortion services). It is not fair. (It’s) like ’na my business in Lesotho is to kill babies. They know all the Basotho who are doing that,” the doctor said after asking the reporter a few questions.
After the reporter insisted demanding services from him, the doctor said: “If I agree, you will wait until all the other patients are done and gone. This is going to be a process. In fact, you are going to have to sleep here overnight….”
Lawyers contacted by the MNNCIJ to interpret section 45 of the Penal Code Act were common in one thing; that the law was enacted against the rising backstreet abortion industry resulting in many cases of botched operations being reported.
Police spokesperson, Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli has shot down allegations rape victims are harassed when they report their cases with the police.
“That’s just an excuse by other victims. The police work very hard to provide an environment that is conducive to people reporting cases of rape. That is why we have established the Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU), which is a helpful arm of the police for such cases,” Mopeli told the MNNCIJ in an interview.
However, Mopeli indicated there were challenges. “The system is not perfect of course but it is still better for victims of rape to come forward,” he said.
On abortion adverts, Mopeli said they were aware of pamphlets selling abortion services, “but in most cases we have found out that the actual abortion services are conducted in Lady Brand, South Africa, which is outside our jurisdiction.” Abortion is legalised in South Africa.
Mopeli said they were not aware of any clinics offering illegal abortion services in the country.
American based publication, CNN, last month published most women in Lesotho found abortion services on Facebook.
The publication said it talked to nine Basotho women, aged between 17 and 30 years, who took illegal abortion pills sourced online. The article adds most abortionists operating in Lesotho are foreigners.
According to Dr Lla Maama of the Ministry of Health, the risks of botched abortions include perforations and over bleeding.
“When I used to be a practising doctor I saw instances of women mostly young girls who ended up having to have their uterus removed as a result of a botched abortion. Some had to be told they would never conceive again and of course some did die. The cost of human life for anything is just too much,” Dr Maama told the MNNCIJ.
She added treatment on women who suffered consequences of botched abortions was costly on the public health care system.
“We are talking about the costs of surgery, occupancy, treatment, medical professionals and other hospital costs. I cannot tell you whether abortions should be legalized or not. But as Christians we should think about it hard,” Dr Maama said.
The MNNCIJ was further made to understand that pregnancy termination pills, namely Cytotec, were readily sold from as little as M300 at some local pharmacies.
The problem, Dr Maama explained, was that due to stringent rules around the drugs, purveyors crushed and mixed the pills with other substances to form concoction which often prove harmful on a human body.
Ms ’Mantšalla Ramakhula of the anti-gender-based violence advocacy group, She-Hive, says the scourge of illegal abortions in the country is propelled by culture in Basotho women “of refusing to speak out.”
“It is true that termination is legally permitted in cases of incest and rape, but that requires victims to speak up and tell other people about it. Sadly, Basotho women don’t speak out. They would rather face the danger that comes with botched abortions,” Ramakhula said.
An opinion held by some members of the public speaking to the MNNCIJ this week is that criminalisation of abortion in Lesotho is one of the many examples of the country using its patriarchal to adversely affect women’s health rights.
The opinion, MNNCIJ observed, was also fuelled by a belief among some members of the public that the law enforcement officers were seen to be arresting and prosecuting women who have committed illegal abortions than the “doctors” performing the operations.
Superintendent Mopeli said it was easier to prove a woman had committed illegal abortion than to find the “doctors who are often foreigners who, in some instances, use fake names to provide the services and flee the country at time of trouble.”
At the time of publishing this article, there were no abortion related statics from the police and Ministry of Health.