by Sumy Sadurni
As I sat down across the table from Joy, listening to the methods that Ugandan girls and women use to perform unsafe abortions, I grimaced and crossed my legs as a natural reaction. Joy Asasira and James Zeere, from the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) based in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, have released a new report about abortion and the consequences of unsafe procedures: needless to say, it is pretty daunting.
Abortion in the country is only legal if the mother’s life is in immediate danger. This means that victims of rape, women with cervical cancer and anyone wishing to terminate an unwanted pregnancy could face a seven year sentence in prison. It also means that any health worker performing an abortion could face up to fourteen years.
Methods to carry out these procedures include sticking sharp and unclean instruments up the uterus, killing the foetus instantly. Most common objects include cassava sticks (a root vegetable) and pens- but really anything a woman can get her hands on. These will destroy the womb, causing internal bleeding which, if untreated ( and it usually is for fear of being found out) will cause heavy bleeding which can eventually kill the woman. Other methods such as local herb potions are just as dangerous as they can also cause uncontrollable bleeding or the poison can kill, and seeking post-abortion care is just as taboo as the abortion itself, as the woman will not only be faced with horrific injuries but will also be faced with judgment.
“Women are scared to seek post-abortion care out of fear of prosecution or being stigmatized by their communities. When they do seek care, it’ll be at the last possible moment and health workers are just as sceptical about treating them,” Joy explains. “We know of several cases where a health worker has treated a woman for post-abortion care, and when the woman bleeds to death on the surgical table, the health worker will be prosecuted and the clinic’s reputation tainted.”
CEHURD has clearly stated in the past that they “are not trying to change the law- we are merely trying to clarify it and push for policy guidelines that allow victims of rape, for example, to have access to legal and safe abortions.” Anti-abortion lobbyists believe there is no justification for promoting the act of abortion in the name of rape. For Ugandan girls, this is worrying as unfortunately rape in the country is very common.
According to Joy, “sexual offences are rife, and the Uganda Police annual crime report in 2014 recorded 12,077 cases of defilement, 1,099 of rape and 57 cases of incest.” These are only recorded cases- the reality is that the figures are higher than that.
Asia Russell, Executive Director of Health GAP, confirms that “Uganda has an epidemic of sexual violence and a lack of access to justice and to safe abortion services for these women”.
“And in many cases,” she says “police just don’t record the cases or will not follow them up.”
In Uganda, religion plays a massive role when it comes to politics, law and culture itself. It is mostly Christian, though when it comes to abortion it seems that every religion is opposed to a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body. In fact, all throughout this month, religious leaders from both Christian and Muslim faiths have rejected a planned legislation called the “Abortion Bill” which could potentially soften strict rules on abortion, making it easier for women to access safer procedures.
After seeking out religious opinions on the matter, the most common anti-abortion argument was that it promotes casual sex and is the ‘most bloody’ execution of children.
In Uganda, unsafe abortions make up 26% of maternal death rates. The country already has a high maternal mortality ratio of 438 deaths per 100,000 live births. That means that out of the 6,000 deaths of women each year due to pregnancy or childbirth, 1,200 women will die from unsafe abortion.
Uganda also has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Sub- Saharan Africa, and as figures show, more than 24% of Ugandan young women are pregnant or have already had children before the age of 19. Thus, using promiscuity as an excuse to criminalise abortion is seen as ridiculous by many pro-choice supporters; teens are highly sexually active regardless of whether abortion is legal or not.
“This epidemic of preventable death from unsafe abortion is an outrage,” explains Joy. “The need for abortion services in Uganda by women of reproductive age is a reality. Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who live in denial but we push on with our advocacy for the wellbeing of women and girls.”
It’s really the same old tale: male leaders of two of the most misogynistic religions out there believe they should have a say over women’s bodies and decisions. Here is hoping that Parliament can look past these primitive opinions and put the rights of Ugandan women first because really, it’s about time.
|My friend took me to an elderly woman who told me to find cassava stick. She peeled off the outer layers of the stick and told me to lie down on my back and raise my legs. She then pushed the stick inside me and when she pulled it out blood came with it. She told me to go home. She told me that if after three days nothing had come out I should come back to her.
After three days of nothing coming out, I went back to her. This time she gave me some herbs and told me to chew them. They were very bitter. After chewing those hers she again pushed the cassava stick in me and this time she pushed it really hard and I felt a lot of pain in my abdomen. I started crying and felt like screaming but she told me not to shout or we could attract attention.