Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in South Africa

URGENT NEED: While the law has made a difference in policies recognising the rights of women to terminate a pregnancy, they must have all the information, tools and services at their disposal to help them make the choice, says the writer. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

As we commemorate 63 years since the historic women’s march to the Union Buildings, we need to collectively reflect on the gains made by women and for women, especially in the health sector. As we continue to fight for reproductive justice, while globally a restrictive and conservative picture persists, we need to introspect on where we are now and most importantly, we need to be steadfast in our advancement of sexual and reproductive health rights in South Africa.

If we think of the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), followed by the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), these are but a few examples of the significant gains achieved within the sexual and reproductive rights (SRH) movement, which instruments like the Gag Rule now threaten. The

Alabama Abortion ban is another case in point which go against the progressive tide of advancing human rights and specifically, women’s rights. This dual and ambivalent dance of liberal versus conservative, of women’s rights and feminism versus toxic masculinity, and patriarchy is nothing new.

In South Africa, however, despite the legacy of apartheid that it inherited, many commendable achievements can be noted over the past 25 years. While 2019 marks 25 years of South Africa’s constitutional democracy, it also marks 56 years of the Freedom Charter, which later laid the formidable foundation for the South African Constitution.

South Africa’s robust Constitution, along with its progressive policies such as the CTOPA, are heralded the world over, and these have helped advance women’s rights. Since 1995, the government, civil society and other stakeholders have been working to eliminate discrimination against women and girls to achieve equality in all areas of life – in public and private spaces.

Discriminatory legislations have been looked at, violence against women and girls and harmful practices have been condemned and programs have been put in place to address them, even though challenges persist. There has been an increased focus on family planning and access to contraception and abortion.

These paradigms of SRHR were aimed at addressing inequalities in health services by advocating for quality reproductive health services and the protection of a woman’s legal right to access these services.

South Africa does not have a shortage of progressive and robust SRH policies. These have been the cornerstone of many of its gains and successes over the years. But we know that much more remains to be done. We need to address the structural inequities and inequalities that affect a woman’s ability to have control over her reproductive and sexual decision-making.

Statistics SA points to the significant growth of South Africa’s population, where the size grew from 40.6 million in 1996 to 57.7 million in 2018. The data also shows that South Africa continues to have a relatively youthful population, where 39% are between the ages of 15 and 35 years. Though, contrastingly, South Africa is also seeing a simultaneous transition from a young population to an ageing population. 

Thus, our policies, programs and interventions ought to resonate with these peculiar trends and should be able to adapt and traverse these landscape that are characteristic of our current populace. The SDGs create a vision for leaving no one behind. To achieve the SDGs by 2030 and fulfil this commitment, we must work to eliminate the barriers faced by women while accessing SRH services.

This includes facilitating an enabling environment to achieve reproductive justice for women and for them to be able to exercise their right to choose. Though we may not have all the answers just yet, collectively we can discuss and determine the need for reflection on how we can build on the gains achieved thus far. As a collective, we need to determine how we can ensure the longevity and continuity of the SRHR discourse. 

As we remember that historic moment of 09 August 1956 when thousands of women marched against pass laws, we need to rekindle that same agency, where the advancement of women’s reproductive and health rights becomes all or nothing.

Dr Sindi van Zyl is a clinical physician.