Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile opens up about choosing to have an abortion at 19 years old

Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile
Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile
  • Feminist and activist, Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile shares how she reclaimed her power after having an abortion at 19.
  • The unwanted pregnancy resulted from rape but she doesn’t want this to distract from the topic of abortion.
  • After sharing her experience on Facebook, Gaopalelwe built a community under the group Black Womxn Healing Garden’ for women looking for collective support.

I was 19 years old when I first considered having an abortion. Most women and young girls will relate when I say that it was the most terrifying decision I’d ever had to make. I was in my first year of university and a lot was expected of me. The standard had been set.

I fell pregnant after an ex-boyfriend raped me — he forced himself on me within a few weeks of us dating. Although it’s an important detail in mine and many other women’s stories, I don’t ever want this to be the focus, as it shifts from the pivotal topic of abortion. And this is not to say that one is more important than the other.

Abortion has been viewed as something to remain hidden, something dark and that only promiscuous young girls, who ‘wouldn’t close their legs’ (as the prevalent myth goes) would do. The more I thought about it, the more the word ‘murderer’ came to me. What I feared the most was being rejected by my family and society at large. I had seen how women and young girls, who’d chosen to get abortions, were ostracised.

Back to my own experience, I was scared because I didn’t know what pregnancy entailed, and knew that my family would reject the pregnancy despite the fact that I’d been raped. I was afraid nobody was going to believe me and they would all think that I was just being a naughty teenager who had brought the pregnancy on herself.

I was disappointed in myself and regretted agreeing to dating that guy. I basically blamed myself for the rape and subsequent pregnancy. I felt if I had stayed away from relationships as my father had stipulated, I wouldn’t be in that situation. I was afraid of not continuing with my studies, as it was my first year. I thought if I continued with the pregnancy my future would be doomed.

What I knew though, was that I didn’t want to be pregnant and was not ready to have a child. I was also battling through the trauma of being raped. It was a double experience of self-victimisation, fuelled by both the rape and anti-choice cultures.

I remember walking into Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, drowning in guilt, feeling dirty and unable to even utter the words. I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I have any other information other than that I needed an abortion. The reaction from the healthcare professionals only made matters worse.

After being interrogated about my sexual life and being told to come back after several months when my pregnancy would be way past the first trimester, I knew the message was clear: ‘Go away.’

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The reality is that millions of women and young girls, especially in poor and rural communities, continue to face the harsh reality of the stigma against abortion, 21 years after the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed, which gives women the constitutional right to safe abortion for up to 20 weeks of pregnancy and, under serious medical conditions, after 20 weeks.

The anti-choice culture, which sits in our homes, our intimate relationships, our communities, on social media and institutions, has resulted in women either being compelled to go to illegal abortion providers, or being harassed when enquiring about abortions at public health facilities, and essentially being denied access.

I left the hospital feeling worse than before I went in. Still determined to terminate the pregnancy, I was then referred to another clinic. At the time, I could not tell whether it was a legal or illegal clinic. Only after going through a really traumatic process, I realised it was not a safe and controlled environment.

The consequences of an unqualified individual performing a medical procedure and selling abortion pills are often fatal. Had I died that day, the devastating effects of stigma on my life and the experiences of many women and young girls would simply be untold.

Young girls would rather not speak to their parents when they fall pregnant, let alone when they’ve had an abortion. They fear the rejection by their parents and society. Some even go as far as seeking to perform the termination themselves because of the anxiety they experience at the thought of telling anyone.

Older women would rather not tell their partners or husbands, out of fear of being accused of murder. Only my cousin was aware of what was going on. We never really told anyone else apart from my brother, who found out, and apparently only had negative things to say. I don’t want to delve into that, as the issue still hasn’t been resolved.

My family now knows, but from watching my TV interviews and reading my articles. Nobody wants to openly talk about it — and I am okay with that. The anti-choice culture focuses on the right to life of the foetus, and it’s meant to guilt women and gives some moral argument against abortion. But underneath this belief is the policing of women’s bodies, which ultimately violates our human rights.

There is a need to end the silence around abortion so that all women and young girls in South Africa have the right to choose and make decisions about their health, bodies and lives. There are a few enlightening life lessons I walked away with from both the rape and abortion.

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Firstly, it taught me never to judge young women who fall pregnant because you will never fully know the circumstances. It also taught me more about rape than I knew at the time. I had always believed that people could fight off rapists and should dress differently to avoid being raped, but from that day, I learned that rape is about power and not sex — and the victim is never at fault.

The biggest lesson, however, has to be that nobody can choose or decide what I should do with my body. Having an abortion was a big part of opening my eyes to that, as I’d always fallen for the myth that abortion was wrong and unnecessary. 

After sharing my experience on Facebook I received lots of social media feedback from both old and young women, all seeking support and asking how I got over my abortion and managed to speak so proudly and openly. Based on this, I decided to start a Facebook group called ‘The Black Womxn Healing Garden’, which deals with all the experiences of Black, Indian and Coloured women looking for collective support.

From that group, another one called ‘Abortion Support South Africa’, a Facebook secret group, was borne. The bulk of our work is on the public page where we advise women on safe abortions — everything from the procedure to helping them find access to the appropriate facilities. We also advocate for the destigmatisation of abortion, sexual and reproductive rights for women, and call on the National Department of Health to reopen clinics and hospitals that used to offer these services.

We’d also like the health department to equip these abortion facilities and train the medical professionals, who still largely refuse to provide abortion services, and so perpetuate the stigma. More women, seeking abortion services, struggle to get access and end up in the hands of illegal abortion providers, who are in it to make a quick buck, and the consequences are usually nothing short of fatal.

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