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Men's attitudes about abortion in uganda
Original Research Article in Journal of Biosocial Science
Men’s Attitudes about Abortion in Uganda
Ann M. Moore1, Gabriel Jagwe-Wadda2, and Akinrinola Bankole3
Senior Research Associate, Guttmacher Institute, NY, NY, USA
2 Deceased, last position was as
Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
3 Director of International Research, Guttmacher Institute, NY, NY, USA
Published in Journal of Biosocial Science (2011), 43, pp 31-45
Abstract available on Journal of Biosocial Science website .
Abortion is illegal in Uganda except to save the life of the woman. Nevertheless,
the practice is quite common: About 300,000 induced abortions occur annually
among Ugandan women aged 15–49 (Singh et al., 2005) and a large proportion
of these women require treatment for postabortion complications. In a male
dominant culture as exists in Uganda where men control most of the financial
resources, men play a critical part in determining whether women receive a safe
abortion or appropriate treatment if they experience abortion complications. This
study examines men’s role in determining women’s access to a safer1 abortion
and postabortion care. It draws on in-depth interviews (IDIs) carried out in 2003
with 61 women aged 18–60 and 21 men aged 20–50 from Kampala and
Mbarara, Uganda. Respondents’ descriptions of men’s involvement in women’s
abortion care agreed: Men’s stated attitudes about abortion often prevented
women from involving them in either the abortion or postabortion care. Most men
believe that if a woman is having an abortion, it must be because she is pregnant
with another man’s child although this does not correspond with women’s
reasons for having an abortion--a critical disjuncture revealed by the data
between men’s perceptions of and women’s realities regarding reasons for
seeking an abortion. If the woman does experience postabortion complications,
the prevailing attitude among men in the sample was that they cannot support a
woman in such a situation seeking care because if it had been his child, she
1 By using the term “safer,” we mean to identify an abortion that is less likely to result in abortion complications. We do not use the term safe because even access to resources does not guarantee a safe abortion in Uganda.
would not have had a covert abortion. Since money is critical to accessing
appropriate care, without men’s support, women seeking an abortion may not be
able to access safer abortion options and if they experience complications, they
may delay care-seeking or may not obtain care at all. Barriers to involving men in
abortion decision-making endanger women’s health and possibly their lives.
Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita annual
income of US$340 (World Bank, 2009). More than 85% of the population lives in
rural areas, making it one of the least urbanized countries in sub-Saharan Africa
(World Bank, 2009). The average family size is about 6.7 children per woman;
however, the desired family size is lower (5.0 for women and 5.8 for men)
(Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) & Macro, 2007). This means that women
and their partners are finding it difficult to prevent the pregnancies they do not
want either then or at all. Thirty-three percent of births and current pregnancies
occurring between 2000/2001 and 2005/2006 were, according to the woman,
wanted later and 13% were not wanted at all (UBOS & Macro, 2007). This is
because desired fertility has decreased more rapidly than the increase in
contraceptive use. In 2005/2006, contraceptive use was low (24% of currently
married women and 54% of sexually active unmarried women were using a
method with traditional methods accounting for 5.8% and 7.1% of this use,
respectively), yet 41% of married women do not want a child soon, or at all,
though they are not using an effective method of contraception (UBOS & Macro,
2007). The high level of unmet need (41%) signifies the proportion of the
population at risk of an unintended pregnancy.
According to national law, abortion is illegal in Uganda except to save the life of
the woman. The abortion law in Uganda is the result of laws promulgated by
English colonizers in the nineteenth century. At that time, abortion was illegal in
Europe and so the laws in the territories were a natural extension of the laws at
home. Since then, abortion has been legalized in Europe, but the old laws have
not been revised in this former colony (Brookman-Amissah & Moyo, 2004). Very
few abortions are performed legally under current restrictions. Nevertheless, the
practice is quite common: About 300,000 induced abortions occur annually
among Ugandan women aged 15–49, a rate of 54 abortions per 1,000 women
(Singh et al., 2005) as compared to 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women in the
United States (Facts, 2010). A large proportion of these abortions are carried out
clandestinely and by unqualified providers under conditions deemed unsafe, that
is using a procedure for terminating a pregnancy either by an unqualified
individual or in an environment lacking minimal medical standards or both.
Virtually all of the abortions that were performed around the time of the Singh et
al. 2005 study used dilation and curettage, vacuum aspiration, saline instillation,
oral induction or insertion of a substance or object in the vaginal (Prada et al.,
2005). Misoprostol, commonly identified as Cytotec, was not known or available
in Uganda at the time the study was conducted, even on the black market.
According to knowledgeable health professionals in Uganda, of the abortions
which occur annually, 50% do not result in complications; 28% result in
complications treated in a medical facility; and 22% result in complications that
go untreated (Singh et al., 2006). This translates into an estimated 85,000
women (or 15 of every 1000 women of reproductive age) receiving treatment for
complications from induced abortion in Ugandan health facilities each year
Most abortion complication patients are treated in public facilities (Prada et al.,
2005). Yet care is not always sought as quickly as it should be, resulting in more
severe complications and further endangering the woman’s health (Thaddeus &
Maine, 1994; Atuyambe et al., 2005). Evidence from health professionals
knowledgeable about postabortion care shows that about 83% of urban nonpoor
women (defined as those with income levels higher than average) and 70% of
rural nonpoor women are likely to receive treatment for abortion complications
they may experience. Sixty-two percent of urban poor women (defined as those
with income levels lower than average) and 51% of rural poor women are
perceived to obtain needed care (Prada et al., 2005). A large and unknown
proportion of women experience complications from abortion for which they do
A proportion of abortion complications, some of which get treatment and some of
which do not, result in death. In 2005, the national maternal mortality ratio was
estimated by the World Health Organization to be 550 maternal deaths per
100,000 live births, making Uganda a country with relatively high maternal
mortality (WHO, 2007a). About 26% of maternal deaths in Uganda have been
estimated to be due to unsafe abortion (Road Map, 2008). While this estimate
seems to be high, it is unlikely it is less than the 17% that the World Health
Organization estimates for Eastern Africa (WHO, 2007b).
Much remains unknown about the antecedents to maternal morbidity and
mortality in Uganda, but one of the factors that is often named by women is lack
of funds to pay for medical care or transportation to the health facility (Weeks et
al., 2005). Anthropological work on motherhood in Uganda demonstrates that
pregnancy and all factors surrounding it are seen as a woman’s responsibility as
well as a test of her fortitude and strength, which may also contribute to women
delaying abortion as well as care for postabortion complications (Kyomuhendo,
2003). Furthermore, social stigma surrounding abortion from members of the
community and anticipation of abuse by medical personnel are yet more barriers
to seeking safer abortions and care for abortion-related complications
(Kyomuhendo, 2003). Finally, partners’ attitudes and women’s perceptions of
partners’ attitudes can delay or prevent women from seeking a safer abortion as
well as seeking care for abortion complications if doing so might increase the
probability that the partner would learn about the abortion (Jagwe-Wadda et al.,
In Uganda, a traditional society where men are the heads of the household and
control most of the household resources, men are in effect gatekeepers to
accessing less dangerous abortions and postabortion care, if needed. Men have
been for the most part neglected regarding their role in pregnancy prevention and
resolution, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (Greene 2000); therefore very little is
known about their attitudes and the role they play in women’s reproductive
health, and specifically, in abortion and postabortion care (Kaida et al., 2005).
This article examines men’s and women’s perspectives on men’s involvement in
abortion decision-making and seeking postabortion care if complications from an
The role male partners play in women’s reproductive health takes place directly
and indirectly, biologically and socially (Dudgeon & Inhorn, 2004).
In relation to abortion, for example, in some countries women even need their
husband’s permission to have an abortion (Gürsoy, 1996). The relationship that
the man has with the woman, i.e. whether the woman is his wife, mistress or
girlfriend, most likely influences his involvement as well as his desires regarding
how to manage her reproductive health (Rausch & Lyaruu, 2005). Whereas
expectations about childbearing within marriage may lead a man to support his
wife to carry a pregnancy to term, a man might encourage a girlfriend abort since
social sanctions might be brought to bear on them for having a child out of
Men play a critical role in reproductive decision-making in sub-Saharan Africa
(Fayorsey, 1989; Mbizvo & Adamchak, 1999). In the minimal work which has
been done with men on abortion in Africa, research has identified men’s
opposition to abortion spanning the continent. A recent qualitative exploration of
men’s attitudes and involvement in abortion in Burkina Faso found that men do
not want women to have abortions. As a consequence, women have them
secretly so as to minimize difficulties that could accompany telling the man about
the abortion (Rossier, 2007). Qualitative data collected with men in Zimbabwe
found that men viewed abortion as a sign of illicit sexual activity (Chikovore et al.,
2002). These authors framed men’s attitudes towards abortion within men’s
attitudes towards control over women and concluded that men felt anxious and
vulnerable regarding their role in society due to shifting gender roles and greater
rights accorded to women. Abortion, as a concrete manifestation of the shift
towards smaller families and greater female autonomy, is the site of a great deal
of social tension. One of the reasons women said they did not disclose their
abortion intentions or experiences to their male partners was because they
feared violence (Chikovore et al., 2002).
In the only research done to date with men in Uganda on abortion, Nyanzi et al.
found that due to abortion’s legal status in the country, their respondents,
motorbike taxi drivers, felt it necessary to dissociate themselves from the practice
in public spaces (2005). Yet in private spaces they reported being involved in
abortions. This notwithstanding, the motorbike taxi drivers expressed a great deal
of tension and conflict over abortion as it relates to notions of respectability,
family and shame. The study participants reported that relationships do not
survive the event of an abortion due to guilt, broken trust and inherent conflict
The research project under which these data were collected set out to
understand how women in a setting such as Uganda where abortion is highly
restricted and the abortion rate is high, attempt to induce abortion and if
complications ensue, how they go about seeking postabortion care, if at all. The
motivation behind the study was to try to capture abortion complications among
women who never make it to a health care facility to treat their postabortion
complications. What became apparent when analyzing the data is the critical role
men play in determining women’s access to a less dangerous abortion as well as
appropriate and timely postabortion care. Men, as key gatekeepers to abortion
and abortion-related care in Uganda, is the subject of this analysis.
This report draws on data collected via in-depth interviews (IDIs) carried out in
2003 with women and men who reside in Kampala, an urban district and the
capital city of Uganda, and Mbarara, a largely rural district in the west. In each
district, one subcounty/division was selected at random and within each
subcounty, two parishes were selected. Households who had women and men
residing in them between the ages of 18-60 were identified with the assistance of
women community leaders. Once households were identified, the study
coordinator (one of the co-authors, GJW) arbitrarily selected potential
respondents. Less than one in 10 respondents who were approached to
participate in the in-depth interviews refused to participate. The refusals were
from individuals who were engaged in an activity at the time they were
approached such as tending a shop or farming. In Kampala, the data were
collected in the Luganda language and in Mbarara, the data were collected in the
Runyankole language. All of the interviewers were graduates from the
Department of Sociology, Makerere University, with backgrounds in social
science research methods and field experience in qualitative data collection who
were adequately trained on administering the in-depth interview guide.
61 women aged 18–60 and 21 men aged 20–50 were interviewed. The
interviewer obtained informed consent from each respondent before proceeding
with the interview. On average, the IDIs took between 30 and 60 minutes. Within
this sample, the men were better educated than the women, most of the sample
was married/in a union and Christian (see Table 1).
The IDIs asked about respondents’ personal experiences with abortion and
abortion complications as well as about the abortion experiences of community
members including men’s attitudes towards abortion, men’s reactions to women
who have abortions, men’s role in helping women have abortions and treat
abortion complications, and what men could do to help women avoid health
complications from unsafe abortion. As can be seen from the topics of the IDIs,
this work does not deal with reasons for unintended pregnancy or the reason for
seeking an abortion. It is focused on the abortion experience exclusively.
The taped interviews were transcribed by hand, first into the language in which
they took place and then translated into English. This process is of course
vulnerable to the introduction of ambiguity and even errors either through
incorrect transcription or through inaccurate translation (because the word or
concept does not exist in English, the intended meaning in the local language
was not clear or because the translator chose the wrong word when an adequate
word does exist). This inevitable weakness is intrinsic to any data collection done
in a language different than the language of analysis.
The English translations were reviewed for accuracy and completeness by the
study coordinator before they were entered into a word processing document.
The text was coded by the interviewers using N6 qualitative software (QSR,
Melbourne, Australia, 2001). The main issues explored were outlined in the
coding (node) structure, and analyses were conducted on the relevant nodes.
Two authors (GJW and AMM) reviewed each other’s analyses to ensure
consistency and agreement on interpretation of the results. The paper draws
almost exclusively on the quotes from men. The quotes are identified specifying
residence (rural/urban), age, religion, highest level of education achieved, marital
status, and number of children (parity for the woman, or number of children the
man has fathered that resulted in a live birth).
Men’s attitudes toward abortion
When questioned generally about men’s attitudes towards abortion, male
respondents stated that men are not supportive of women having abortions. The
reasons they give for being against women having abortions is that they do not
agree with the practice; they believe that the aborted child could be an important
member of society; that the woman could die undergoing the abortion, and they
fear that they themselves might be arrested. As was found by Chikovore et al. in
Zimbabwe (2002), men stated that if a woman is having an abortion, it must be
because she is trying to evidence of an affair. Other reasons that came up less
frequently were that poor men feared having to bear the costs of abortion and
treatment for abortion complications; it may be the woman’s only opportunity to
have a child; and men who have AIDS would like to have three or four children
Interviewer (I): Do you think men in this community are supportive of a woman’s
Respondent (R): No, they are not supportive because one who aborts could die
and more so, the aborted baby is also a human being.
—Rural male aged 28, Muslim, Primary 5, Married, 8 children
Some men want children and getting a child is not something easy. Some men
die without producing a single child. Some men want babies and if a woman
gives birth, he feels proud to get someone to call him “Father.”
—Urban male aged 32, Protestant, Primary 7, Married, 4 children
Men’s responses largely reflect the prevailing socio-cultural norms and values,
influenced by religion, and the legal environment, all of which are strongly against
abortion. However, men made an exception for young women in school.
Consistent with Nyanzi et al.’s findings, the majority of men believed it to be
acceptable for schoolgirls to get an abortion (2005). Men’s support for abortion
under this circumstance seemed to be largely motivated by self-interest as the
reason men gave for being in support of a schoolgirl’s abortion was that the man
responsible could be brought up on defilement (rape) charges if the schoolgirl is
found to be pregnant as the age of consent in Uganda is 18 (Nyanzi et al., 2005).
Notably absent in their justification was that the girl should be given an
opportunity to continue school since pregnant girls are expelled from school.
Women’s secrecy around abortion
The social stigma against abortion for anyone but schoolgirls as well as the pro-
natalist outlook held by most Ugandans, particularly among men towards
childbearing within marriage, can serve as a disincentive for a woman to speak
with her partner about abortion. The perception held by both men and women in
the sample was that women frequently do not let their partners know about
abortions, and that the greatest secrecy is exercised within marriage.
I: Do women discuss with their husbands or partners about their unwanted
R: It is not common for your wife to tell you. Maybe if she is a
prostitute/concubine. She can tell you, “I did not want this pregnancy so let us
abort.” But for a woman who you married and stay within the home, she cannot
--Rural male aged 43, Catholic, education not specified, Married, 6 children
Women respondents described abortion as the woman’s secret. One woman
who helped her friend abort explained how they kept the secret from her partner:
I: Did the man who impregnated her come to know that she aborted?
R: We planned and deceived him. Before she aborted, she got some fever and
the man knew about it. After she aborted we told him that she had a miscarriage.
--Rural female aged 50, Muslim, Primary 6, Married, 10 children
Similar to women’s experiences in Burkina Faso (Rossier, 2007), women in
Uganda, such as the situation related above, are inclined to keep the abortion a
secret to minimize problems that may come with telling the man.
Men’s involvement in postabortion care
Approximately half of women who obtain abortions in Uganda will need
postabortion care in her lifetime (Singh et al., 2006). (For an explanation of
common abortion complications in Uganda, see Prada et al., 2005.) Since many
women keep abortion a secret, men described how they may not even know that
a woman is experiencing abortion complications.
I: What do men do when their wives/partners experience health problems after
R: Many men don’t get to know that their women are having complications
resulting from stopping a pregnancy. They only see the women sick, thinking it’s
malaria. This causes the woman many problems and she can even die. She can
be given treatment for malaria and the real complication isn’t treated at all.
--Urban male aged 44, Catholic, Primary 5, Married, 5 children
As this quote demonstrates, some women maintain their secret of having had an
abortion even while obtaining treatment—underscoring the severity of the
consequences women perceive may come about as a result of having had an
abortion. This desperation to keep an abortion a secret is also one of the primary
reasons respondents said that women delay seeking care for complications.
If a woman who did not involve her partner begins to experience complications,
not only does she have to weigh the consequences of revealing that she has had
an abortion but at that point, it also becomes unavoidable to reveal that she
made the decision to have an abortion without informing her partner. The primary
reason men and women gave for women telling men about abortion
complications was because of the need to get money from him to help pay for
treating the complications. It is possible that a woman may be able to secure
financial support from other sources than their partner to treat abortion
complications, either through her own income or through the assistance of
others. Yet in a country as poor as Uganda, there are very few who have any
resources to spare. Women who have the assistance of their male partners are
much more likely to be able to get safer abortions and appropriately treat their
abortion complications. Having money was specified as a prerequisite to getting
treated at clinics (private health units) and respondents said that money also
speeds up the treatment one receives at the hospital (public health units where
treatment is supposed to be free). While cost estimates were made conditional
on the type of complication the woman was experiencing, they ranged from 3,000
Ugandan shillings to 200,000 Ugandan shillings (equal to about US$1.50 to
If the woman chooses not to reveal, she can try to self-treat her complications,
most likely through the use of traditional, less effective methods. Women
respondents, as well as women they knew about who had postabortion
complications, related adopting a wait and see approach in the hopes that they
would not have to reveal their abortion to their partner. While the woman is
waiting to see if she’ll get better, her health, her future fertility and even her life
are being threatened. Just a Chikovore et al. identified in Zimbabwe, but which
applies to the Ugandan just as well, “The silence and secrecy imply that
abortions and related complications and even death may occur without men
Men unequivocally stated that if the man finds out that the woman terminated a
pregnancy without his knowledge, he cannot support her no matter what health
problems she experiences. Part of the perceived offence was that the woman
has done something abominable, since abortion is highly stigmatized and seen
as something evil. Further offence was taken at terminating a pregnancy that the
man may have wanted. (As was presented in the introduction, men and women
differ on ideal family size in Uganda with men wanting, on average, 0.8 more
children than women (UBOS & Macro, 2007)). Men also perceived that a woman
having a secret abortion must be trying to hide the evidence of an affair. Lastly,
men also expressed unhappiness that a woman would make a decision to have
I: Now during that time when the man figures out that the woman has developed
these complications, how does he support the woman?
R: In our culture here, when the woman develops these complications when she
didn’t inform her husband, then the man may even separate with the woman or
the man may opt not to support the woman in any way and the woman has to
--Urban male aged 50, Catholic, Senior 4, Married, 4 children
Not having money was mentioned by a couple of men as a reason why males
may not provide support for partners who experience abortion complications.
Men explained that sometimes men even deny responsibility for the pregnancy
because they do not have money to help the woman with postabortion
complications. This adds emotional injury to physical injury as it is socially
disgraceful to have the man deny responsibility since it implies that the woman
Numerous men interpreted the fact that a woman had an abortion as a sign that
she did not love her partner anymore as evidenced by the fact that she did not
want to have a(nother) child with him. Men used this as another justification for
not supporting a woman if she experiences complications.
I: What do men do when their wives/partners experience health problems after
R: It depends on whether you agreed upon having the abortion or not. If you
agreed, you try to buy her food and drinks to restore her energy. If you did not
agree to have an abortion, she takes the responsibility for her action because
that means she doesn’t want you anymore.
--Rural male aged 43, Catholic, education not specified, Married, 6 children
I: What do men do when their wives experience health problems after stopping a
R: Some men usually send these partners to their homes [parents’ home].
R: Because since this woman is not willing to produce my child then the best
thing is for her to go back to her parents.
--Urban male aged 22, Bahai Faith, Primary 7, Separated, 1 child who died
Yet women’s reasons for having abortions did not adhere to men’s perceptions of
infidelity or lack of women’s interest in their partner. The women in the sample
who had experienced an unwanted pregnancy explained that their previous child
was still young, she was in school, and that she had a conflict-filled relationship
with her husband. Women stated that women may decide to keep the abortion
secret because they figure other people, including her partner, are not likely to
see the need for the abortion. This research thereby uncovers a disjuncture
between the perceptions of men and the realities of women regarding why a
woman may choose to terminate a pregnancy. That misunderstanding holds
serious consequences for the woman’s health as it directly impacts her
willingness to involve her partner in her abortion experience, exposing her to
Conditions under which men are supportive
While male respondents did not uniformly present men as barriers to women’s
health care access, they presented, at best, scenarios of men’s involvement that
were highly conditional. In cases where men have a prior knowledge of the
abortion or are involved in the decision-making, they described helping women
make doctors’ appointments, providing financial support such as buying her
medicine, arranging for transportation or taking her to a facility for treatment, and
For me, if I agree with my partner to abort…I go to the clinic/hospital and buy her
medicine. If it requires taking her to the hospital I take her. If it requires buying
her energy building foods, I can buy them.
--Rural male aged 43, Catholic, education not specified, Married, 6 children
As a man, if you really love your wife, especially those who are married, the man
has that duty to support the women in this matter. You have to seek treatment for
her. You don’t just leave her to seek treatment herself. You don’t just leave her
like that! This is one of the responsibilities of the husband in the home.
—Urban male aged 40, Protestant, Senior 6, Married, 3 children
As this quote demonstrates, men’s sense of responsibility to the woman
experiencing abortion complications may be conditioned on to their relationship
to the woman (see also Rauch & Lyarru, 2005).
In Uganda, abortion culturally challenges women’s predominant identity of being
a mother. Abortion is a threat to pronatalism and secret abortion is a threat to
men’s dominance in the home. In a situation such as Uganda where abortions
are almost always carried out illegally, as was found in Zimbabwe by Chikovore
et al. (2002), not being able to get the man’s financial and logistical support for
carrying out the abortion increases the probability that the woman will have to
resort to a less safe abortion which increases her chances of getting
complications. As in Zimbabwe, men in Uganda interpreted abortion to be a sign
of infidelity and as such, they said they could not support a woman seeking an
abortion or suffering complications. Chikovore et al. (2002) concluded, in the
case of Zimbabwe, that this demonstrates married men are more concerned with
women’s sexuality and their own feelings of vulnerability and lack of control over
female sexuality than they are with women’s health. Similarly, in Uganda, the fact
that men categorically said they could not support a woman requiring
postabortion care who had had an abortion without their knowledge and consent
also demonstrates a prioritization among Ugandan men in our sample of control
over female sexuality that trumps possibly saving that woman’s life.
While it is possible that men were expressing more rigid anti-abortion sentiments
than they actually held to distance themselves from abortion, men’s anti-abortion
sentiments and subsequent behaviors were verified by the women interviewed in
the sample. Men’s expressed stand on this issue may also reflect their tendency
to see themselves as the custodians and enforcers of the cultural norms and
values in a largely patriarchal society like Uganda, especially if they perceive that
tradition is being undermined by women rejecting traditional roles of
reproduction. Whether men’s stated opposition to abortion as well as their stated
unwillingness to help a woman with postabortion complications in fact dictates
their behavior when confronted with such a situation is unknown. The dangers of
this discourse are that women may never find out how their partner may react to
an abortion since, based on men’s discourse, women may choose not to involve
their partner either in trying to procure an abortion or manage postabortion
complications and as a consequence, experience serious health problems. If
men expressed more comprehension of women’s abortion-related choices, then
perhaps fewer women would feel compelled to resort to secrecy regarding their
abortion. Yet until men are willing to support women’s choices, this secrecy may
be essential to protect women’s access to abortion.
These data point to the disjuncture between men’s perceptions of why a woman
would have an abortion and women’s reasons for seeking an abortion. Men’s
misperceptions seem to prevent them from supporting women’s abortion or
abortion-care seeking. Educating men about women’s burdens, fears, and
constraints that lead them to elect to have an abortion has the potential to
engender greater comprehension among men of women’s abortion decision-
making. Whether this compassion might lead to men’s increased involvement in
Chikovore et al. (2002) point out that women’s silence around their abortion
experiences misses an important demonstration of how women exercise their
agency. “Without disregarding the vulnerability of women and the male violence
within patriarchal structures, emphasizing women’s powerlessness risks
concealing other capabilities of women, which can be the basis for promoting
women’s health” (pg. 329). Women’s experiences of clandestine abortion
seeking, resourceful pursuit of postabortion care and the use of girlfriends and
other female family members to carry this out (Jagwe-Wadda et al., 2006) is a
demonstration of women’s agency as a subversion of men’s domination that can
be easily overlooked because of women’s fear in speaking about abortion.
This paper what is known about men’s involvement in abortion and postabortion
care in a setting where abortion is mostly illegal. Dudgeon and Inhorn’s review of
male involvement in women’s reproductive health did not discuss men’s
involvement in women’s access to safe abortion or appropriate postabortion care
(Dudgeon & Inhorn, 2004). Nyanzi et al.’s article did not examine postabortion
care (2005). And while this paper did not directly treat Kyomuhendo’s theory that
in Uganda, all pregnancy-related problems are treated as a woman’s fault and a
sign of her failing, the fact that men were so quick to absolve themselves of any
responsibility related to women experiencing abortion complications lends further
In the patriarchal social structure present in Uganda, rules governing women’s
access to abortion are subject to the perceptions of abortion as envisioned by
predominantly male policymakers, service providers and, of course, husbands.
Abortion is roundly condemned by the prevailing religions on Uganda, as well as
the firmly pronatalist culture which ascribes preeminent social value to having
children. The discourse men used to justify their disapproval of abortion was
grounded in cultural values and religious terminology. The language men used to
describe their opposition to abortion was so uniform, it bespeaks the
effectiveness of religious and cultural messages which condemn abortion.
Men have been largely ignored as agents in the reproductive health sphere
(Greene 2000). The necessity of involving men in reproductive health programs
was reinforced at the International Conference on Population and Development
held in Cairo in 1994, at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing
the following year (Family Care International (FCI), 1999), and domestically, in
Uganda’s 1995 National Population Policy held that same year (Ministry of
Finance and Economic Planning, 1995). The neglect of men as agents and
clients of family planning has been identified as a cause of the limited impact of
many family planning programs in Africa (Ezeh, 1993; Agyei & Migadde, 1995).
While involving men in women’s reproductive health has clear benefits, it must
also be acknowledged that involving men compromises women’s sexual and
reproductive autonomy and exposes them to men’s possible interference in their
sexual and reproductive decision-making since if men are against abortion or
they want more children than women, if the man knows about her desire to abort,
he may interfere. This interference may include attempts by men to prevent the
woman from accessing an abortion, or potentially, postabortion care (Moore et al.
Involving men in family planning holds the potential of reducing unintended
pregnancy and thereby the demand for abortion. Work that Kaida et al. (2005)
carried out in Mpigi district, Uganda, found that men have limited knowledge
about family planning and that there is poor spousal communication about family
planning in general, yet men want to be involved in family planning. This is a
hopeful sign that men are interested in being included in the reproductive health
sphere. The authors concede, however, that there remains a disjuncture between
men’s stated willingness and the reality of their actual participation in family
planning programs (Kaida et al. 2005). Efforts have been made in other country
contexts including Egypt and Tanzania to utilize men’s involvement to proactively
improve women’s postabortion care-seeking (Abdel-Tawab et al., 1999; Rasch &
Lyaruu 2005). Therefore, while it is important to proceed cautiously in efforts to
increase men’s involvement, models exist to encourage male involvement in
Future research would do well to unpack Ugandan men’s gender roles and social
scripts that are contributing to their stated attitudes towards women who have
abortions and who require abortion care (Greene 2000). Such an unpacking of
men’s abortion attitudes may identify ways to address the root causes of men’s
widespread opposition to abortion as well as provide recommendations for how
men could help protect women’s health within the confines of men’s commonly
held attitudes and beliefs. Furthermore, to the extent that men adhere to an anti-
abortion rhetoric but perhaps act differently in private is another area of inquiry.
In the Burkinábe context, Rossier noted that men’s attitudes about abortion have
not kept pace with women’s lived experiences. She argues, “Abortion is kept a
secret by women, not because it is a form of transgression nor from an
awareness of having committed a socially condemned act, but in order to
manage their public image in a society where social norms have not caught up
with actual behavior” (Rossier, 2007: 237). The same could perhaps be said of
Uganda since in December 2003, Uganda signed the African Charter on Human
and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. That charter specifies that
women have the right to control their fertility; to decide whether to have children;
to decide on the number and spacing of their children; to obtain adequate,
affordable and accessible health services; and to access medical abortion in
cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, danger to the mental and physical health of
the mother, and danger to the life of the mother or the fetus (African Union,
2003). Uganda’s endorsement of the African Charter suggests that Uganda’s
abortion law, just as in Burkina Faso, may be out of step with prevailing public
will, or at the very least, the country’s political will, and that the time may be ripe
to revisit the law dictating the provision of legal abortion in Uganda. Until then,
programs that seek to redress some of the gender inequalities that inhibit men’s
support for women’s pregnancy termination decisions and treatment for
complications which can arise in a setting where abortion is highly restricted may
help protect women’s reproductive health. We hope that the day will come when
men express greater compassion for women’s reproductive predicaments and
participate as respectful collaborators in women’s reproductive health.
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Table 1. Characteristics of women and men in-depth interview respondents
Number of children
*For one male respondent, education level not specified (question not asked).
The authors would like to thank Ellen M.H. Mitchell, Grace Bantebya
Kyomuhendo, Annika Johansson, Stella Neema, Patty Skuster, Susheela Singh,
Vanessa Woog, Elena Prada, and an anonymous reviewer for the Journal of
Biosocial Science for their constructive comments and suggestions on an earlier
version of this manuscript. This work was made possible by the Netherlands
Ministry for Development Cooperation, the World Bank and the UK Department
for International Development.
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