How a U.S. Abortion Ban Would Impact Africa
Washington’s curtailment of reproductive rights at home and in U.S. foreign aid programs has historically had dramatic effects on women’s rights across the continent.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Sudan lifts state of emergency, Senegal mediates Congo-Rwanda tensions, and Namibia looks to secure green energy deals.
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Why Roe v. Wade Matters to Africans
In May, a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that the court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade—the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Given that the United States is the largest donor to global public health efforts, such a move could have ripple effects far beyond U.S. shores in Africa and elsewhere.
There is evidence that previous U.S. crackdowns on abortion rights have made it more difficult for women to access contraception, even in countries where abortion is already illegal. In 2017, then-U.S. President Donald Trump adopted a more stringent version of the Mexico City policy, also known by critics as the “global gag rule,” which cut U.S. government funding to any organizations deemed to promote abortion. (The move was reversed by the Biden administration in 2021.) The policy change shut down contraception services in Malawi, Senegal, and Kenya.
Although abortion is illegal in Nigeria, except to save a woman’s life, women in northern Nigeria found it harder to access contraceptive implants because they were being provided by local health facilities that received their funding from U.S. organizations that had their funding curbed because they also provided abortion services in other countries.
One 2019 study in the Lancet found the global gag rule’s impact on contraception availability contributed to a 40 percent spike in abortions in African countries that receive U.S. funding. In a 2018 study, researchers Stella Babalola and Olamide Oyenubi found religion, male power dynamics, and lower levels of formal education among northern Nigerian women compared to the south limited their agency to negotiate contraceptive use with their spouses.
Restricted access, particularly in rural communities, meant health clinics found it more accessible to offer a three-month implant. But after the global gag rule went into effect, major providers of birth control lost funding. It effectively meant that Nigerian women who could not afford private health care could not control when they got pregnant; insecurity in that part of the country due to Boko Haram attacks exacerbated this problem.
Approximately 44 percent of Nigerian girls are married before their 18th birthday, and federal law does not recognize marital rape. The Nigerian government spends just 4 percent of its federal budget on health care, and, according to an investigation by Nigeria’s International Center for Investigative Reporting, the majority of that goes to employing office workers, so poorer communities can only access health care services provided by nongovernmental organizations.
Unregulated abortion providers who are ill-trained work in a lucrative shadow economy that has led to more than 6,000 abortion-related deaths annually.
One director at the Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria, which is funded by Nigeria’s federal ministry of health alongside a host of U.S organizations, told Foreign Policy that ongoing restrictions on abortion are primarily due to leaders’ fears of religious backlash. Politicians, particularly in the more liberal southern states, are willing to relax laws, but the power wielded by Christian and Muslim religious leaders could cost them an election, so they dare not try.
In 2013, amid lobbying from Christian groups, the governor of Imo state in southern Nigeria repealed a law he passed allowing for abortions in the case of rape, incest, or mental and physical health consequences for the mother. On the surface, the Nigerian government supports family planning initiatives. In reality, many women are often denied contraception by conservative public health care workers.
Even in the south, shaming by pharmacists persists when women seek to purchase condoms. “There was the stigma attached to single girls who not only had the effrontery to engage in pre-marital sex but also had the audacity to buy contraceptives,” one woman told Premium Times.
When the Roe v. Wade decision was issued in the 1970s, it became an important legal landmark for women fighting to liberalize family planning laws around the world—including in Africa. Nine months after Roe v. Wade, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, liberalized abortion laws, making it available to all women without marital consent. In 1986, Cape Verde allowed abortion prior to 12 weeks of gestation, which aligned with Roe v. Wade.
Overturning the decision could undermine liberalization campaigns across the continent. Benin’s parliament last October voted to legalize abortion. Over the past decade, at least nine African countries have sought to relax punitive colonial-era laws around abortion. This includes Mali, Togo, Chad, Niger, Mauritius, Somalia, and São Tomé and Príncipe. The latter moved from an absolute ban to allowing unrestricted access in 2012. And since 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s government has been expanding projects aimed at improving access to safe abortion.
But, behind the scenes, foreign anti-abortion movements have curbed African leaders’ ability to make progress on women’s rights. Right-wing U.S. Christian groups have spent at least $54 million between 2008 and 2018 fighting sex education, contraception, abortion, and LGBT rights in Africa.
It is therefore hardly surprising that 92 percent of African women who are of reproductive age live in countries in the region that have in place a form of restriction on abortion, contributing to more than 77 percent of abortions carried out on the continent annually being unsafe. In Uganda, which has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Africa, health centers linked to U.S. right-wing groups opposed contraception and promoted abstinence, according to an investigation by openDemocracy.
In Kenya, a bill proposed in 2020 by two female members of Parliament—Susan Kihika and Esther Passaris—sought to expand access to safe medical abortion and other reproductive health services. However, it lost political support after a viral social media backlash. The online furor implied Kenyan people were not in favor of the law. However, a 2022 report found it was part of a disinformation campaign initiated and funded by CitizenGO, a right-wing group based in Spain.
“Almost everyone who is going to fight against the Reproductive Health Care Bill has had their hand in the cookie jar. They will not talk about how they lie, commit adultery and steal,” Passaris told the Kenyan outlet the Star back in 2020. “Such people do not have the moral authority to talk against the reproductive health rights of a woman,” she said, referring to Kenyan politicians who rejected the bill.
Such reversals aren’t just about access to abortion in African countries; there is also a potential knock-on effect that could impact health care delivery and contraceptive access.
New York-based campaigners who oppose the birth control pill have instead promoted a menstruation-tracking app in Nigeria. In April, around 23 so-called civil society organizations in Nigeria also lobbied against any promotion of abortion and contraception in the country. A U.S. regression could embolden conservative governments on the continent to provide women with even fewer options and undermine access to skilled health care workers.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, June 1: Nureddin Nebati, Turkey’s minister of finance and treasury, visits Egypt.
Thursday, June 2: OPEC and non-OPEC members meet virtually.
Tuesday, June 7: Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
South Africa publishes its GDP figures.
What We’re Watching
Sudan lifts state of emergency. On Sunday, Sudan’s military junta lifted a state of emergency imposed during a coup on Oct. 25, 2021. Earlier, the United Nations envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, called for the state of emergency’s end, following the killing of two protesters during anti-coup demonstrations on Saturday.
At least 1,600 pro-democracy protesters have been arrested and 98 killed in the government crackdown on anti-coup protests since October. The junta has pledged to also free political detainees. In a decree issued by Sudan’s military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the decision was made “to prepare the atmosphere for a fruitful and meaningful dialogue that achieves stability for the transitional period.”
Congo-Rwanda tensions. The African Union’s chair, Senegalese President Macky Sall, has called for dialogue between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda after Kinshasa on Saturday summoned Rwanda’s ambassador and suspended flights from the country, accusing its neighbor of supporting M23 rebels carrying out a military offensive in its eastern borderlands.
On Monday, Sall held talks with the leaders of both countries “in the quest for a peaceful solution to the dispute,” he posted on social media. Relations had begun to thaw after Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi took office in 2019 on the promise that he would improve security, but the recent resurgence of M23 attacks has reignited tensions.
South Africa and Black empowerment. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that he will appoint a council this week to advise on Black economic empowerment. The country has one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa; it hit a record 35.3 percent, according to a March World Bank report, which found the country still remains the most unequal globally.
The council is being established because of a lack of progress in improving Black involvement in parts of the economy, particularly among Black women and young people, nearly three decades after apartheid ended and two decades after the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, which aimed to facilitate Black shareholding and skills development in businesses, was passed.
“At the end of apartheid, black ownership of [Johannesburg Stock Exchange]-listed companies was less than 1%. This figure has not improved much in the past 28 years,” Ramaphosa wrote in a weekly letter to the nation.
Chad bans protests. Chad’s military government has banned protests in the country, citing a “terrorism alert” in the capital, N’Djamena. The move comes amid rising pro-democracy opposition protests. “There is a very high terrorist alert in the city of N’Djamena, which has forced us to ban all public demonstrations,” Chad’s Communication Minister Abderaman Koulamallah said. Hundreds of Chadians protested last month against French support of the military government led by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who has been in power since his father’s death in 2021.
This Week in Tech
Namibian green energy. Namibia House made its debut at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, seeking support for its green hydrogen projects. Currently most hydrogen is produced using natural gas in a process that generates large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions, but the so-called green process is a zero-carbon fuel that uses renewable electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen; less than 2 percent of hydrogen globally is produced this way.
While expensive, it has formed a key part of Europe’s plan to pivot away from Russian energy dependency—and Namibia is looking to fill part of that gap. The European Commission said this month it was looking to import 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen annually to replace fossil fuels in several industries. Germany pledged 40 million euros ($42.6 million) last August within a partnership to develop Namibian hydrogen production.
Demand for African metals and minerals has also increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Higher uranium prices could trigger more mining projects in the country. “There are a number of uranium projects in the pipeline just waiting for the price to recover,” Namibia’s Finance Minister Ipumbu Shiimi told Bloomberg. “If the price reaches $65-$70 a pound, then that will trigger more investment in uranium.” Namibia launched a sovereign wealth fund in May, following the discoveries earlier this year of oil and gas off its coast.
Chart of the Week
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent a shock through commodity markets globally but has affected African countries differently. Rwanda is experiencing dramatic food price inflation. Such inflation has doubled in Ghana, while in South Africa it has held relatively steady. In Angola and Botswana, food prices have gone down. The drop comes as Botswana’s Agriculture Minister Fidelis Molao said the country will expand a long-term ban enforced in January on imported vegetables in a bid to encourage sales from local farmers.
What We’re Reading
South Africa’s xenophobic roots. In New Lines, Kwangu Liwewe looks at the theory that South Africa’s violent Black-led xenophobia against African migrants could be rooted in its apartheid past, which, as she tells it, “portrayed the rest of the continent as uncivilized and underdeveloped, leaving the majority of South Africans without a sense of Pan-Africanism.”
South American resistance. Jonneke Koomen in Africa is a Country writes about the publication of one of the most extraordinary accounts of Dutch colonialism. We Slaves of Suriname was first published in Dutch in 1934 and is now available in English for the first time.
Anton de Kom, a Black Surinamese independence activist born in 1898—whose father had been freed from slavery as an infant—wrote the book while in exile. When World War II broke out, de Kom joined the Dutch resistance, was captured by the Germans in 1944, and died in a German concentration camp in April 1945—days before it was liberated.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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