Sharing Abortion Stories Through the Arts for Healing

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The latest conversation is between Omodele Ibitoye (Initiative to Resist Institutional Slavery and Exploitation (iRISE), Nigeria) and Maja Dimitrijevic (Serbian Association for Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH), Serbia). These two inroads members have been working in refugee contexts to provide psychosocial counselling and also using arts based methods such as theatre and voice to create a space for people to narrate their abortion stories. Tune in to listen to their experiences, questions, and dreams and join in the conversation for a stigma-free world!

The session was on May 6 @ 130 PM UTC, 230 PM WAT, 330 PM CEST

About the Hosts

Maja Dimitrijevic works as a Program Assistant with organizational, program, and fieldwork focus at the Serbian Association for Sexual and Reproductive Health ( an IPPF member). 

She has been involved for 10 years in different types of work and activities related to human, women rights and gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and now with the focus on sexual and reproductive rights. Maja has a lot of experience in the systematic coordination of project activities related to migrant/refugee crises. In the last couple of years, Maja more specifically works on addressing issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights through managing project activities and strengthening dialogues and partnerships with different national, regional, and international nongovernmental stakeholders. 

Giving the experience she provided psychosocial and educational session support for vulnerable groups on which work she is very proud.

OMODELE IBITOYE EJEH is an activist and counseling teacher with about 19 years of counseling experience. Omodele is the coordinator of One Billion Rising in Nigeria, she is the Founder of Initiative to Resist Institutional Slavery and Exploitation (IRISE), an organization that focuses on women’s sexual rights and reproductive health, including women’s rights to safe abortion. Through counseling her work has helped girls and women in rural, urban and criss areas tell their abortion stories for the purpose of emotional healing. IRISE works in collaboration with local governments, faith based organisations, grassroot organisations, international organisations, and women leaders, to influence policy, and achieve shifts in practice. Omodele has been actively working with women, girls, and communities against gender based violence and stigma around abortion.

Tune In Here

Notes From the Session

Can you tell us a bit more about the context of refugees, reproductive health access and challenges in Nigeria and Serbia where your work is contextualised?

  • Serbia has around 6,000 refugees, 90% of whom are sheltered in government reception centres. Usually people transiting Bosnia and Herzegovina and then to Croatia, come to Serbia (due to the closure of the Balkan route, many people come to Serbia, although this is not a chosen place for most people). Many families come from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and some from Pakistan. Some families have been in Serbia for 4-5 years as refugees, and their challenges are much more complex than families who have recently arrived. 
  • SRHR needs on one level for refugees include: unwanted pregnancies, deliveries, STIs. On the other level, there are challenges of lack of language interpreters (oftentimes another refugee has to translate breaching privacy practices and there are largely male interpreters),  lack of female staff providing these services. Most of the staff have preconceptions that refugees would not approve of contraception and abortion, and also assume that refugees only have consensual and heterosexual sex with their “married” partners. None of this is true! Refugee populations are very open for dialogue, learning new information and taking care of their health. SRH Serbia works with gynaecologists to provide educational workshops in these reception centres and free check-ups or treatments in State health centres. 
  • In Nigeria, since 7 years Boko Haram insurgency (that started in the north and now is in the South) has led to huge internally-displaced camps (IDPs) within the countries. There is a genocide situation, over 3 million people are displaced across Nigeria. The terrorists also kidnap young women and girls, and many are being sexually abused. Women and girls in IDPs have no or little access to reproductive healthcares, and the women who are taken away even less so. The authorities, are involved in the sexual abuse, and there is no space for caring for the trauma, health and rights of these women. 
  • Working in such a situation requires empathy, not thinking of these women and girls as objects, and engaging them in a form of counselling that involves emotional release (discharges) and freeing yourself in that particular moment. The work involves a lot of listening, instead of talking to them, providing comprehensive educational materials in local languages for health rights and access. 

How can abortion story-telling/sharing be decolonised in a world where colonialism, racism and NGO-industrial complex has treated our stories in a utilitarian way? How does one build processes of abortion storytelling for healing in refugee contexts?

  • In Serbia, SRH began to work in workshops, information sharing sessions and theatre-based activities. Theatre allowed to delve into topics like patriarchal cultures and religion, and the fact that women in their communities were not taking decisions around their own bodies and reproduction. Theatre allows to talk about abortion-stigma, play with gender roles, to externalise from the problem getting into someone else’s role, to ask questions, and to find solutions, resolution and transformations. Participants also could see how social constructs come about, and how to deconstruct them. 
  • Storytelling allows for empathetic learning, builds bridges and connections and allows transformation in attitudes of people who listen to their stories. Access to abortion is a symbol of women’s emancipation and equality, and this is important for refugee and migrants in Serbia. Storytelling is a tool for mental health, psychosocial support and destigmatization of abortions. 
  • In Africa, storytelling plays a big role in how people always have passed history from generation to generation. Therefore, in Nigeria, Omodele uses drama, storytelling, dance and music, in the most natural and decolonised way. With younger people, one needs to use more fun processes, activities and exercises. The work in IDPs and rural and urban poor communities requires a deep understanding of history and context. 
  • There is violence, bad government policies, lack of CSE in school curriculums, inadequate access to healthcare, economic oppression, religious and cultural discrimination and stigma, lack of community support. Information is key and there is a need for more local language education on abortions, reproductive health, rights and sexuality. Colonial languages can be oppressive: people can hear, but not comprehend and engage. Colonial legacies on healthcare policies need to be challenged and deconstructed to prioritise people of colour and black people. 
  • African countries are “independent by chains”- we are not financially and economically free. The economic resources of Africa are exploited, while prices of services are set by the west, and so we are dependent on Aid. Our healthcare system (master-servant relationship between healthcare providers and person who needs abortions) especially within healthcare system, these colonial relationships continue in hospitals. 
  • Women in refugee and low income rural and urban contexts should have a space to tell their abortion stories, in an environment where people do not abuse and use their stories (for NGO purposes), nor one where they are pitied and only given sympathy. People don’t necessarily want to be told “it will be okay” as many people know that it won’t just be okay so quickly. People need to have a trusting space, a liberating space, free from language and cultural oppression, a listening space.