The Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, will host a colloquium on safe abortion and realising women's human rights from 23 to 24 January 2020. We invite abstracts on overcoming barriers to safe abortion in the African region.

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Please note: The Colloquium will be presented on 23 and 24 January 2020, and not on 16 and 17 January 2019, as indicated on the Call for Abstracts.

About the Colloquium

The colloquium is about developing responses to the persistence of unsafe abortion in the African region. The focus is two-fold: critically exploring laws, policies and practices that serve as barriers to access to safe abortion; and suggesting reforms to overcome the barriers in consonance with women’s human rights. The colloquium will be held at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa, from 23 to 24 January 2020. It is expected that submitted abstracts and papers will propose ideas and solutions which can assist lawmakers, the judiciary, policymakers, health-care providers and other pertinent institutional actors in meeting the needs of women and girls with unwanted pregnancies. Also, it is anticipated that papers presented at this colloquium will be reworked by authors and submitted for consideration for publication in an edited book or peer-reviewed journal.


A woman’s decision whether or not to terminate an unwanted pregnancy remains the subject of regulation by the state in ways that are profusely gendered, punitive and stigmatising. Virtually all African states have laws that regulate abortion. Unsafe abortion that is linked to the criminalisation of abortion remains a major public health hazard and human rights challenge in the African region. 

Unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal mortality and morbidity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year unsafe abortion is responsible for the death of 29 000 women in the African region and that that many more are rendered ill or disabled. 

The law is an important gateway to safe abortion. There is clear evidence that demonstrates a co-relation between dis/enabling laws and abortion-related morbidity and mortality. Equally, additional barriers that may not be openly contained in abortion laws, policies and practices often prevent women from accessing safe abortion services. Countries that permit abortion to meet the needs of women and girls with unwanted pregnancies have the lowest abortion-related morbidity and mortality providing there is equitable access to abortion services and vice-versa. Available evidence also shows that criminalising abortion does not prevent abortions or increase the number of births. Rather, criminalisation has the effect of fuelling access to unsafe, ‘backstreet’, abortions.

Globally, including in the African region, there has been a trend towards liberalising abortion laws mainly through broadening the grounds for eligibility. Significantly, close to 50 per cent of African states now recognise health as a ground for abortion. Only a minority of states have retained colonially-spawned laws which, historically, have been highly restrictive of abortion. Another important global development is the increasing recognition of abortion as a human right by United Nations (UN) treaty-monitoring bodies in concluding observations and in general comments, general recommendations and decisions on communications brought under UN treaties’ optional protocols. Furthermore, at an African regional level, women’s right to safe abortion has been accorded the highest human rights recognition.  

In 2003, Africa took a global lead in inscribing abortion as a human right under the African regional human rights system. The African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). Article 14(2)(c) of the Protocol requires states to permit abortion where pregnancy poses a risk to the life or health of the woman or to the life of the foetus, or where pregnancy is a result of sexual assault, rape or incest. More than two-thirds of African states have ratified the Maputo Protocol. In 2014, in cognisance of the persistence of abortion-related morbidity and mortality, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted General Comment No 2 mainly to provide guidance to states on the interpretation and implementation of the women’s right to safe abortion in article 14 of the Maputo Protocol.

However, despite a changing global and regional human rights environment, at the domestic level, African women are rarely able to access safe abortion as can be inferred from the high prevalence of unsafe abortions in the region. There is a general lack of implementation of abortion laws as well as institutional opposition towards abortion across the region, including in the healthcare sector. African states that have taken positive and tangible steps to implement abortion law, such as Ethiopia and South Africa, are exceptions. But even in these countries, women continue to experience barriers to safe services. When seeking reform of abortion law to mitigate its effects as a barrier to safe abortion, therefore, the focus should not just be on expanding the substantive grounds for abortion. Implementation of abortion law should also be a critical area for scrutiny. Even where the grounds for abortion are enabling, it matters whether or not there is an effective framework and infrastructure for facilitating the realisation of the grounds, especially by women who lack access to socio-economic power or knowledge to exercise their reproductive autonomy and rights.

African domestic regimes which recognise that abortion is lawful but in practice deny  safe abortion services render women’s reproductive rights mere tokens. On the one hand, they seem to recognise women with unwanted pregnancies as moral agents with decisional autonomy and deserving of protection from the need to resort, by default of safe access, to ‘backstreet’ abortion providers. On the other hand, the regimes deny choice and tangible access to safe abortion services. Given the historical criminalisation of abortion, lack of effective implementation contributes to uncertainty about what is lawful. It fosters erroneous assumptions about the illegality of abortion among women seeking abortion, health care professionals with competence and responsibilities to provide reproductive health services, and the general public. In this way, it accentuates the stigmatisation of abortion through a double discourse in which laws that permit abortion are juxtaposed with state practices, whether codified or not, that deny abortion. Ultimately, failure to implement rights that are already conceded denies women essential healthcare and is a catalyst in creating an environment conducive to unsafe abortion.

Against this backdrop, convenors of the colloquium invite abstracts (and, eventually, papers for accepted abstracts) that are aimed at identifying and addressing barriers to safe abortion in the African region. The parameters of an abstract can be at a country level, sub-regional level, regional level and/or global level or a combination of these levels. What is crucial is that abstracts should address African needs within a context that clearly identifies the barrier(s) and incorporates human rights as a remedial response.


The colloquium, which will be held on 23 and 24 January 2020, will serve as a forum for scholarly interactions and exchange of ideas on proffering recommendations to address barriers to safe abortion services in Africa from human rights perspectives. It seeks to bring together scholars, practitioners and researchers from the African region and beyond working on various aspects of abortion. Interested participants are invited to submit abstracts on topics of their choice.

Possible topics to consider

The following are mere suggestions rather than an exhaustive list of issues that authors may consider using as a focal area or areas:

  • provision of information on legality of abortion
  • provision of information on availability of legal abortion services
  • provision of services that are available, accessible, acceptable and of good quality
  • essential medicines and abortion
  • technology, human rights and access to safe abortion services
  • abortion and self-medication
  • regulation of range of health-care professionals and/or health-care facilities that can provide safe abortion services
  • requiring-third party consent, for example, from healthcare professionals, health care facility committee, court, police, parent or guardian, partner or spouse
  • interpretation and implementation of conscientious objection
  • guarantee confidentiality and privacy
  • judicial interpretation of grounds for abortion
  • international human rights norms and abortion
  • intersection between abortion and culture
  • intersection between abortion and religion/theology
  • place of global and regional jurisprudence in interpretation and application of domestic abortion laws
  • constitutionalisation and abortion
  • place of civil society and NGOs in promoting access to safe abortion services

Submission specifications

A committee will review abstracts that are in English, are 400-500 words in length, without footnotes or endnotes, and in MS Word format (not PDF). Abstracts must include in a single document: Title of abstract, author’s name, affiliation, qualifications and email address

Important dates

Abstracts must be sent by email to chrispine.sibande@up.ac.za by 23 August 2019

Authors wishing to discuss ideas before submitting an abstract can contact the convenors at charles.ngwena@up.ac.za / edurojaye@uwc.ac.za ;

Authors will be notified by 4 September 2019 whether their abstract has been accepted. 

Authors of accepted abstracts are required to submit full papers by 5 December 2019


Funding for travel and accommodation is available for participants whose abstracts have been accepted. 

Authors will be notified about travel and accommodation arrangements by 13 December 2019.



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