This article originally appeared on the Patriotic Vanguard , a Sierra Leonean online news site, with headquarters in Vancouver.
1.7 million -this is the number of women who seek treatment or unsafe abortion complications in sub-Saharan Africa annually.
1360 per 100,000 live births-this is the maternal mortality ratio for women in Sierra Leone. For every 100,000 live births-1360 women die due to severe complications.
The government of Sierra Leone, already overburdened with a very weak health system that is mostly funded by donors, spends between $112,000 to $230,000 annually, to treat post abortion complications (PAC).
10%-this is the percentage of women who die from post abortion complications from the total number of women who die from pregnancy complications.Sierra Leone remains a dangerous place to be a woman.
As a result of this shocking and overwhelming situation, the Safe Abortion Act was passed by parliament in December 2015. This bill replaced an archaic colonial law passed in 1861 that banned abortion completely except in the event of saving the mother’s life. The new act presaged a dawn of reform, a turning point for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and an indication that the lawmakers were serious when it came to adhering to the Maputo Protocol, an international treaty for Women’s rights that Sierra Leone was however one of the last states to sign. When Hon. Isata Kabia tabled the bill in parliament, it was a long overdue cry for critical change.
The Safe Abortion Act would permit access to abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would be permitted until week 24 in cases of rape, incest, or health risk to the fetus or the woman or girl. Although this does not permit full unconditional legal abortion, considering the current climate of women’s rights in Sierra Leone, I would say that this was a big step for us. In January 2016, the bill was presented to the President of Sierra Leone Ernest Bai Koroma, to be signed into a law-and it has not been signed since.
The reason? Well, a group named Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, who voiced concerns over the “inalienable right of man to live” decided to petition the President to not sign the bill. Their concerns were that even if a woman has been raped, even if a 12 year old child had been impregnated, even if the pregnancy could bring mental and physical trauma to the mother, she should still be forced to carry out a nine-month pregnancy, with very little prospects of proper support to care for her child, and at high risk of dying in childbirth.This concern was well received by the President who promised to send it back to Parliament for reconsideration and the story has dragged on since, coming close to a year now since the bill was passed. There is still a large percentage of young women and underage girls who go through botched abortions by quack doctors and nurses and end up with post abortion complications that are even more of a burden to the already weak health care system.
One argument I heard from religious people was that “well, why should young girls go and get pregnant, if you don’t want to get pregnant and have to go through a botched pregnancy, just abstain from sex”.
However, how much are we as a society doing to really preach proper sex education in schools? How empowered are young women to both access and properly use contraceptives? How much support do young women receive to properly care for their children in one of the poorest countries in the world with a high rate of corruption? How are we dealing with older men preying on under aged girls for sex and how are we helping these young girls to be able to say no? How are we combatting rape (which is on the rise) in a culture that still mostly blames women and girls for the tragedies of sexual assault?
The fact that this bill has not yet been reviewed by parliament or signed is one of the most disappointing incidents in the fight for women’s rights in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, it is a shameful fact that we still abide by a colonial law, wherein the country that that the law came from (UK) has since moved way ahead of us in terms of reproductive and sexual rights for women. The fact that lawmakers want to move forward with the Safe Abortion Act and it is been stalled by a group who deem themselves worthy of being the national moral police makes me question whether my country is being governed by the law or by a religious cabal.
We need real and desperately urgent change for women in Sierra Leone. International human rights law has stated that abortion must be available to all women and girls, and at a minimum in cases of rape and incest, when the woman’s health or life is at risk, and in cases of severe or fatal fetal complications. Yet, young girls and women continue to die in an attempt to save their own lives. We need change that respects women’s rights, change that values the liberty and freedom of women to protect their lives and empower them to make safe choices. We need that bill signed. This is not just about life-it is about rights and freedom for Sierra Leonean women. And it is long overdue.