Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

World Contraception Day: Girls in South Africa Speak

September 18, 2012

This blog is part of a series, edited by Women Deliver, in partnership with Impatient Optimists, on youth perspectives to celebrate World Contraception Day. Share your thoughts in comments and join the conversation at #WCD2012. For more stories and to get involved further visit No Controversy.

The basic human rights of women regarding their health, bodies and sexuality are under threat, and have been called into question during recent debates on contraceptive use and reproductive rights.

In response to these violations, my organization, Girls & Football SA, an award-winning NGO based out of South Africa, carried out a series of interviews with girls and women to discover how they felt about access to accurate information regarding their reproductive health and rights. The women we spoke to confided that distribution and use of contraceptives is a main issue affecting them on a daily basis. This is due not only to a lack of information available on safe contraceptive use, but also due to a poor health delivery system and societal misconceptions regarding issues of morality surrounding contraceptive use.

At a global level, reproductive rights are guaranteed through institutional bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and highlighted through the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s (IPPF) Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, which states, “Good health is essential to leading a productive and fulfilling life, and the right of all women [in order] to control all aspects of their health.” At a national level, the South African Constitution stipulates that reproductive rights abuses and harmful practices must be exposed and condemned wherever they occur, so that policy makers, the media and the public will understand the need to take action.

Despite positive guidelines and ethics that are meant to ensure safe health practices, the current state of reproductive health laws and rights are often ignored in practice at clinics in South Africa. One woman interviewed by Girls & Football SA shared this story:

“In October 2011, I stopped taking a family planning pill in preparation of conceiving. That same month, I did a home pregnancy test and it was negative. Two weeks later, things were very off, and I went back to the clinic. A nurse gave me medication to stop the bleeding I was experiencing. She didn’t do a pregnancy test and quickly dismissed me, saying I was only experiencing the side effects of the pill, even when I explained to her I had stopped taking it. The more I took the other pill she had given me, the worse my symptoms became. I went back to the clinic the following day and demanded to see a doctor. The doctor confirmed that I had been six weeks pregnant and was experiencing a miscarriage. A scan was done and the doctors continued with a treatment. Before the doctor could inject me, I asked her what the injection was for, to which she responded, ‘It’s Depo-Provera, for family planning’. I informed her that I preferred the pill, but I could not understand why she did not ask for my consent or my preference, and why she did not give me any options.”

Despite having a right to full disclosure of information regarding her sexual and reproductive rights, our interviewee experienced immediate dismissal. She received no counseling to deal with her traumatic experience, and she was not given any information on her contraceptive options.

Unfortunately, this story is only one of many. In an interview with Cape Town based Dr. Otilia Mazhindu, she said,

“Local clinics and big hospitals have set guidelines and procedures to follow with regard to contraceptive use. It is not good to inject Depo-Provera without somebody’s consent, because [patients must be informed about possible] side effects. These can include… a delayed return to fertility [in comparison to other contraceptives] in some women.”

Despite her words of caution, many girls and women find themselves in situations where they are forced to make an impossible decision.

Another woman, Sandra L. (33), said she went to the biggest hospital in Cape Town where the doctors told her they were not familiar with the contraceptive method she was using. She told us,

“I had a five-year Norplant, but I was told that only those ‘coming from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Congo’ were using ‘those types of contraceptives’ and that hospital staff would have to consult other regional hospitals for advice.”

Norplant, a contraceptive placed under the skin in a woman’s upper arm, is a popular method of contraception, but due to a lack of information available, Sandra says she “settled for a Depo-Provera injection” without being informed of all her options.

South Africa faces significant challenges when it comes to sexual health, and with the high prevalence of rape, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, schools need to implement strong and informative programs on sexuality and contraceptive use. Yes, these issues can be hard to discuss. However, when girls and women aren’t presented with the information they need to make decisions about their health and sexuality, they are unable to make their best personal choice.

Girls & Football SA strongly believes that by creating a safe space through our programming, we are able to present girls with the chance to ask questions, get accurate information and start a dialogue about their bodies, their health, and their sexuality.

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