Fertility Friday has allowed me to share so many stories – beautiful, hopeful, painful touching. This one though, is a story of utter tragedy, told with such devastating honesty by a dear friend of mine about someone she loved very much.
This is not my story. This is the story of my sister-in-law. She was two years younger than me, and our lives have unfolded, continents and cultures apart. Whilst my story is one of a happy family with three healthy, planned children, my sister-in-law’s life was different. The defining aspect of her life was inability to control her own fertility through circumstances of both her own creation, and the societal mores and laws.
At 17 years old my sister-in-law found herself pregnant. Unknown to her family, she had become involved with a man in his mid-20s who lived in the same village. No-one in the family knew of the relationship or the subsequent pregnancy. I often wonder how much she even realised what was happening to her. It was only when she was around 5-6 months pregnant that her maternal uncle suspected something was amiss and took her to the doctor. Thankfully, she delivered a healthy baby boy two weeks after her 18th birthday, and her blood tests showed both she and the baby were HIV negative.
So at this point my sister-in-law found herself barely an adult, a single parent with no source of income and little chance for further education and employment in a society where there is no support such as a single mother’s pension, and youth unemployment is stubbornly high. Therefore single motherhood was almost a guaranteed one-way ticket to a life of poverty and struggle. Despite all of this, my sister-in-law had dodged a bullet. She was HIV free. This was no small thing in a country which at that point had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, with rates in pregnant women at 52% positive in some districts. It was literally a flip a coin chance as whether you would end up with AIDS. Luckily she didn’t. Her family celebrated this blessing and tried as best they could to support the young mother.
With some self-reflection, the family decided to try and be more open with issues related to sex. This was a highly unusual thing and was a marked change. Traditionally, sex and fertility were not openly discussed. Marriage was the founding stone of families and the rate of marriage was in free-fall due to the impact of industrialisation and AIDS. In place of marriage, a culture of casual, concurrent sexual relationships has emerged which lead to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS through communities. Further, the economic gulf between men and women (many men being employed in the relatively lucrative mining sector and women being unemployed or taking lower paid work) meant that many young woman actively sought out sugar daddies, trading sex for things like phones and rent.
Against this background, situations such as my sister-in-law’s hardly garnered sympathy. Her situation was not unusual, in fact it was frighteningly common. She struggled along best she could. She lived with her mother (her father has passed away some years ago) and eventually found some work in the retail sector. I recall sitting in my mother-in-law’s house and noting that my mother-in-law, doing the best she could to address the unspoken issues, had hung a poster on the wall warning of AIDS and how it could be prevented.
So while the situation was not ideal, she had the support of her mother and occasionally a small amount of child support from the baby’s father. Most importantly of all the child was surrounded by love. Whilst a lack of material goods and money is poverty, the worst poverty of all is a lack of love. So although there was little else, my nephew had the love of his mother and most especially of all his grandmother. His grandmother was a sure and steady hand. His mother was in many ways still a girl and struggled to adjust emotionally to motherhood and her limited circumstances.
Then when the baby was 18 months old, my Mother-in-law passed away. With both her parents gone, no father in the picture in a formal sense and no means to support herself, the situation for my sister-in-law was potentially dire. Upon settling the estate, her siblings bequeathed her mother’s house and all its belongings to her so she and the child would at least have somewhere to live.
Over the years she was involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with the father of her child. Eventually, due to a lack of employment opportunities she left the village and moved away to the city and at times lived with the father of her child, who had also moved for similar reasons. Although she never discussed it with us directly, we suspect that theirs was a tumultuous relationship and there were allegations of domestic violence. Despite, being an immensely beautiful woman she always had a deep sadness in her eyes. After years of this difficult relationship, around five years ago she permanently split from the father of her child and moved out on her own. Her son was in primary school. They rented a room and got on with life as best they could. By Australian standards you would call their circumstances poverty, but she was doing everything possible, working and caring for her child alone. From our outside perspective, we had thought she had finally managed to get her life on an upward trajectory, and that with hard work and perseverance she would pull herself and her son onto the ladder of economic opportunity.
In 2015, through extended family, my husband and I received word that my sister-in-law was very ill. We queried what was wrong, but no-one could quite explain. We were told she was not eating and had lost a lot of weight. What could be the matter? The possible causes ran through our minds… cancer, eating disorder, AIDS? Her illness had come of out of the blue – we had recently travelled to visit the family and my sister-in-law seemed well. How could someone become so unwell in such a short time? We were perplexed and worried.
Then, over the next couple of weeks the phone calls started coming more frequently, and at all hours of the night due to the time difference. Relatives would repeatedly tell my husband that his sister was unwell, but no-one could tell him what was wrong. All they would say is that she was not eating. At some point she was admitted to the hospital. We tried to call the doctor on duty and request a definitive diagnosis. We could not get any clear answers. Then one cold August morning, I awoke to find my husband was no longer in our bed. I found him in the kitchen weeping. He had just received the news that his youngest sister had passed.
With no parents or husband, it was the job of my husband, her oldest brother, to arrange the funeral. My husband was in shock. She was unwell, she was not eating and now she was dead? In a state of confusion my husband flew overseas immediately to meet his other siblings and to request release of his sister’s body from the hospital. In between the tears of raw emotion and the heavy duties of organising a funeral and planning custody arrangements for our nephew, we began to piece the together what had happened to my sister-in-law.
Piecing together pieces of information whispered from relatives and friends it was revealed that my sister-in-law had once again found herself unexpectedly pregnant, this time at the age of 30. Who the father of this child was, or if it was a product of a consensual relationship is something we will never know. Faced with a crisis pregnancy, in desperation my sister-in-law had sought an abortion, in a country where abortion is illegal in all except the rarest of circumstances. However, it is still a regular occurrence practiced by back-yard butchers and traditional medicine men.
To the best of our knowledge, in order to induce an abortion, my sister-in-law was given some sort of highly acidic substance to drink. We suspect it may have been battery acid. Not only did drinking this concoction induce abortion, it destroyed her digestive tract. For weeks after drinking it she lay on her bed bleeding, writing with pain but refusing to seek medical help. Not only was abortion illegal, it carried a seven year jail sentence. If she sought medical help she was afraid she would lose custody of her son. She was rapidly losing weight and could not eat. Eventually she confessed what had happened to her sister who took her at once to the hospital to seek assistance. It was too late. Several days after admission she died. The attending physician said her case has hopeless. The substance that she has drunk had destroyed her internal organs and she died a slow and painful death. Stunningly the physician admitted her case was not unusual. He admitted he would see at least 200 cases of abortion related deaths in the hospital annually, a leading cause of maternal mortality, and these are just the ones he knew of.
So why do I tell this sad story? Because it has to be told. Without discussing these things and bringing this discussion into the light how will things change? Just like in Australia where “He died in unsuspicious circumstances at home” has become code for he died of suicide, “She was sick” has become code for death due to backyard abortion in my husband’s country.
When my Sister-in-law died I was angry, deeply angry. I wanted the people who did this to her to be found and prosecuted for murder. I was also angry at a society that offers so little support for women that when they find themselves in such difficult circumstances such as this, they are literally driven to gamble their lives. My sister-in-law lost her gamble. In her society abortion is such as shameful thing that no one will even say the word aloud or admit that is what happened. So women continue to die and the men who got them pregnant get off scott free. My sister and her baby paid with their lives. My nephew is an orphan.
Deep down inside I know if it weren’t for very lucky circumstances of my own birth, in a society where women have much more control over their own fertility and a social safety net to fall back on if things are hard, my sister-in-law’s story could have been mine. I have no desire to comment on the morality of abortion expect to say that it is not a choice someone would make if they had a better option, however making abortion illegal does not make it go away. It simply makes it dangerous. The best thing we can do is make society one which is centred on the welfare of mothers and children and economically empowers women.
So my dear sister-in-law, why do I tell this tale? Because I know that no one else will. I care deeply about what happened to you. I am so sorry that you went through all of this alone. I wish you could have reached out to us. If it was a matter of money I would have given you some; or would have I? Do I only say that now because I know how this ended? It’s easy to say I would have helped you with the benefit of hindsight. But if I answer the question with complete honesty the answer would have been likely yes, but it would have been tinged with judgement and a degree of resentment as I have children and bills of my own to take care of. Maybe it was fear of that very judgement that drove her to such desperation…
So my sister-in-law, I love you and I always will and it is my commitment to you that I will always work towards to world in which values and supports women and children. If I cross paths with a woman facing a crisis pregnancy, I promise you that I will do my utmost to help her. For that will be your legacy.
Go well my dear sister-in-law. Tsamaya Sentle.