*Original names have been changed in the story.
Emily is a good friend of mine, and a sister to my best friend’s boyfriend. She’s studying for her Diploma in Marketing. Like many other young people, at age 21 Emily has great dreams and ambitions of her own. She was raised in a Christian Family, her father a Pastor in one of the churches in Lusaka, and her mother a nurse.
Emily’s nightmare began in February 2011 when her father, who was at the time undertaking a forty day fast, told her that he had seen in a vision, a revelation that his daughter had been fornicating and that she had fallen pregnant. Emily was quite shocked at that statement by her father and denied his allegations. Surprisingly he approached her the following day, insisting he’d had the same revelation again. He then dragged her to the University Teaching Hospital, Zambia’s largest hospital, for a pregnancy test.
Emily’s fears were confirmed. Her fathers’ allegations were true, she found out that she was pregnant and that was the beginning of the torture she would go through. Her father was totally disappointed with her. He denounced her for bringing shame and disrepute to his name. He went on to announce her pregnancy to his church, and also that he would treat his pregnant and sinful daughter as he would any other church member, for the shame she had brought to him and the church.
Emily was humiliated in church by her own father, who deeply condemned her for getting pregnant. He dropped her from the choir, and fired her from the leadership position she occupied. She was directed to withdraw from all church activities, even giving offerings, and was told she could only attend church if she sat in the very back row and did not dare involve herself in any activities.
Meanwhile he put her under great distress to reveal the paternity of her pregnancy. She claimed it was her boyfriend, who didn’t want any involvement with the issue and had recently dumped her. Her closest friend Yvonne somehow went behind her back and blew a shell on Emily’s parents. Yvonne told Emily’s parents that a well known Bishop in Lusaka had actually gotten her pregnant. That just worsened the whole scenario.
Emily’s parents were furious, and pushed their daughter to admit it was the Man of God. She denied sexual relations with him and insisted again that it was her boyfriend. Her parents continued rebuking her and took her to a police station so they could squeeze the truth out of her. According to Emily, the policeman slapped her during the interrogation and warned her that she would face grave consequences if she ever tried to get rid of her pregnancy.
Left alone, after differing with Yvonne over her version of the story, Emily would visit me on often and explain her distress, telling me on several occasions about how she could not believe what her father was doing to her. She feared her child would suffer great rejection from her family because she was already being treated as an outcast. She was not even allowed to seek medical services from the clinic where her mum worked, because her mother feared the impression colleagues would have about her.
One day, Emily came over to my house and told me she’d had a miscarriage. Yvonne her friend again came up with a second story – that Emily had actually sought a medical abortion.
Hearing this, Emily’s father went wild, and he announced in his church again that his daughter was a murderer and that she had killed her own baby. Emily was seriously humiliated and could not bear the church’s reaction. Even when she sang along to hymns in the back row, some members would approach her asking how unashamed she was, being a murderer and singing in Church.
She had become the pastor’s demonized daughter, and when she couldn’t stand it any longer, Emily stopped attending church all together. Her father threatened to take her to the police, since he believed she had committed a serious criminal offence by abortion her pregnancy, and really wanted her to be punished for doing so. A policeman was assigned to monitor her and all her contacts. Emily would be stalked even when she went to school, a plan by her parents to trace her contacts. They announced to everyone that she had conducted an abortion and was a disgrace – something that Emily bitterly complained about to me.
Emily’s father also threatened to stop paying her school fees. She had totally lost her say in any family matters, and she was considered a rebel in the house, being used by the devil to undermine the church. It got to the point where she was totally stigmatized when it came to any benefits from the family and was asked to leave the house. Without much hope for improvement of the situation, Emily left her house to live with a friend.
Emily, broke and devastated, called me to say that her friend was facing trouble keeping her and she needed to find a place to stay. We could not help her since our house was fully occupied. I haven’t heard from her recently, but I know her father had told her it’s the last semester he’d pay for her education.
Sadly, the paternity of the child was never proven, but the whole ordeal has left quite a traumatic psychological impact on Emily. She has been a victim of profound stigma even though Zambia is one of the countries with the most liberal abortion laws in sub-Saharan Africa, allowing medical abortion even on socioeconomic grounds. Despite abortion being legal in a variety of circumstances, much of the Zambian community is not well aware of this fact, allowing stigma and discrimination to continue affecting women who abort, even when it they are legally eligible to do so.
This has really left me with a lot of thinking. Should the church doctrines be upheld to such extremes? How far would a father go in destroying his daughter’s life to save his reputation? Have his actions surely made his daughter’s life better? And finally, in this whole mix, surely didn’t Emily have a right to a say of hers?
Emily went through a tough ordeal during her pregnancy and the society around her did not offer to hear her voice. She may have even loved to carry her pregnancy to term, but the psychosocial circumstances around her seemed not allow it. Furthermore, she was really stigmatized over her abortion. Everyone continued to condemn her. This makes me realise that it is not be enough for policy makers to work out legislation, especially concerning sexual and reproductive rights, without society understanding them.
It is clear from Emily’s story that far much more harm could be done by infringing on someone’s sexual and reproductive rights. Very fortunately, Emily did not have a unsafe abortion, or the potentially fatal complications that can go with it. But I wish the story had a much happier ending, with everyone understanding Emily’s actions and offering her some social support, rather than the stigma she may have to live with for her life. I wish nobody had said all those demeaning words to her and I hope through her silent voice in the story, Emily will help everyone understand the true meaning and uphold human sexual and reproductive rights.
Taonga Lisulo is a second year law student at Cavendish University in Lusaka, Zambia.