Susan Baluka from FIDA Uganda (a women’s rights organisation and GRRIPP Africa partner) reflects on the global repercussions of recent moves in the US to overturn abortion rates - especially in Uganda where Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights are on the national political agenda.
On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision that a woman’s ability to determine whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is not a personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. This judgment overturns the decision that the Court made in Roe V Wade in 1973, which upheld the same right. Not only does this U-turn serve as a wrecking ball to America’s legacy as a beacon of human rights, liberty and freedom, it is also a rollback of women’s reproductive rights that will potentially have a global impact.
The Supreme Court judgment has given leeway to federal states within the US to pass laws that prevent women from freely making personal reproductive choices. Advocates for reproductive rights in America have articulated how this will disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged women in America, including poor women, women of colour, and migrant women. These disadvantaged groups already bear the brunt of high maternal mortality rates, poor access to paid maternity leave, an absence of universal health coverage, and the staggering, yet unsubsidized, cost of childcare. The US also has an overwhelmed and underfunded foster care system that leaves children vulnerable to abuse. These are some of the many reasons why reproductive rights advocates have criticized those hailing the Supreme Court’s decision – stating that being ‘pro-life’ is not just about the first breath that a human being draws, but also about the quality of life that they live.
The US Supreme Court’s decision risks having a troubling global impact. Reproductive rights advocates on the African continent are concerned that the decision may bolster opposition to Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) in their respective countries of focus, owing to America’s neo-colonial legacy of influencing policy and practice in countries of the global South. We are also concerned that US rollback of abortion rights will adversely affect funding for SRHR services and commodities, and curtail access for women on the continent.
The impact of the US Supreme Court decision is particularly concerning in Uganda, where conservative religious and cultural values already limit the rights of women and where funding for reproductive health is heavily dependent on US aid. Moreover, this decision comes when Uganda is still recovering from the effects of the Global Gag Rule that was reinstated and expanded by the Trump Administration in 2019. According to a report by the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development, the Global Gag Rule led to the scaling down of reproductive health services provided by local NGOs in Uganda, including the ‘Blue Star’ scheme, which enabled Ugandans, men and women alike, to access contraception services at a minimal cost.
Furthermore, support in Africa for the US Supreme Court’s anti-abortion ruling can be linked to a strong wave of resistance to the East Africa Community Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Bill, which aimed to improve sexual and reproductive rights for women and girls in East Africa. Resistance emerged during the public hearing of the Bill on 29 June 2022, just a few days after the US Supreme Court’s decision. One of the arguments fronted by opponents of the Bill, especially religious groups from Uganda, is that it will promote abortion and sexual immorality.
Despite prevailing patriarchal and religious norms and a disinclination to sexual and reproductive health rights, the Ugandan government has made commitments – nationally, regionally and internationally – to protect these rights. Regional and international  treaties recognize that for women, the ability to control and freely make decisions for their reproductive lives is a major contributing factor towards the realization of women’s full potential – especially in a country like Uganda, which contends with relatively high rates of sexual violence against women and girls.
Indeed, despite the existence of penal sanctions for sexual violence, the rates have steadily increased over recent years, with a particularly sharp rise during the pandemic. In the Annual Police Crime Report of 2021, it was noted that over 16,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls were registered. In over 200 cases, girls were sexually abused by their guardians and biological fathers. Women’s rights advocates assert that these already staggering figures are just the tip of the iceberg and do not reflect the magnitude of the problem due to under-reporting of violations, as many women and girls secondary trauma and stigma. Studies also indicate that over 300,000 schoolgirls became pregnant within the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, forcing them out of school, with minimal chances of re-entry.
Against this backdrop, there is a clear need for both reproductive health services and information for young people, including comprehensive sexuality education. High sexual and gender based violence rates indicate the need for laws and/or policies that can facilitate women and young people’s access to Sexual Reproductive Health services and commodities, including information and counselling, to assist them prevent and cope with the repercussions of sexual violence. The 26% of maternal deaths that are attributable to the use of unsafe methods of terminating pregnancies is also another reason why access to Sexual Reproductive Health services and commodities is important.
The need to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health is rooted in public health, development, and human rights discourse. It is therefore important that, while undertaking legal reform on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights, Uganda, and the rest of East Africa, resist any influence of the anti-rights and anti-women ideology that is embodied in the US Supreme Court’s recent decision. We should take a more Pan African approach, and follow the example of other African Countries like Zambia, Benin and Sierra Leone who have made great strides in advancing Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights.
Susan Baluka is the Senior Legal Advisor in charge of Strategic Litigation at FIDA-Uganda. She is a feminist lawyer with five (5) years’ worth of experience in litigation and advocacy for rights of marginalised communities in Uganda, including Women’s Economic Justice, Violence Against Women and Sexual Reproductive Health Rights. She is an alumnus of the Feminist Litigation Institute, and is currently a member of the Feminist Litigation Network, which is hosted by the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA). As an Advocate of the High Court, Susan is committed to using feminist litigation to realise gender justice in Uganda.
NOTES  The Global Gag Rule is a Policy that was first passed in 1984 by the then US President, Ronald Reagan. It prohibits foreign Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) who receive US global health assistance from providing legal abortion services or referrals, and bars advocacy for abortion law reform. Every US President since Ronald Reagan has made a decision on whether or not to revoke the policy, subjecting availability of funding for SRHR work to political changes happening in the United States.  See Article 14 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Also see Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women