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On the Global Day of Action for Safe, Legal Abortion, activists push for change—and celebrate progress

Thursday, September 27, 2012

girl lying in streetA woman in Nicaragua participates in a theatrical street demonstration staged to raise awareness of the women who have died due to unsafe abortions—and to advocate the repeal of Nicaragua's total abortion ban.

“Few people realize that women actually go to jail in countries where abortion is illegal,” says Ipas senior policy advisor Gillian Kane. “It’s a connection people don’t make.”

Raising awareness of this reality—that in countries with abortion bans, women who have abortions are prosecuted and sent to jail, often along with the men who support them and the abortion providers who care for them—is the main goal of the September 28 Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, which seeks to mobilize individuals, organizations and governments worldwide to protect and fulfill women’s right to accessible, safe and legal abortion.

To mark the day, reproductive rights advocates in countries as varied as Malaysia, Turkey, India, the Dominican Republic and Peru are planning activities—including parades, demonstrations, lectures, film-screenings, lobbying of government representatives and petition signature campaigns. The September 28 Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean (Campaña 28 de Setiembre por la Despenalización del Aborto en América Latina y el Caribe) began in 1990 and has long provided an opportunity for advocates to raise awareness of the harmful impact of illegal abortion. The campaign is now expanding to build a global movement.

Nepal celebrates 10 years of legal abortion

One standout example of the progress possible when abortion is legalized can be seen in Nepal, which celebrates this month the 10-year anniversary of its liberalized abortion law. In just 10 short years, the Nepali Ministry of Health, in collaboration with Ipas and other partners, has established more than 400 public and private service sites throughout the country and trained thousands of providers to perform safe abortions, giving women unprecedented access to safe abortion services.

But it wasn’t always this way in Nepal. Before 2002, abortion was illegal. Nepal was one of a few countries in the world to prosecute and send women to prison under charges of infanticide for abortion. The legal code banned abortion except when the mother’s life was at risk and essentially equated abortion with homicide. Consequently, before 2002, up to one-fifth of women in Nepali prisons were convicted on charges of illegal abortion. This injustice was compounded by very limited access to contraception and high rates of unintended pregnancy.

Since the law was changed, however, the government has made comprehensive abortion care available in all 75 districts of the country and nearly 500,000 women have had safe, legal abortions and contraceptive counseling.

“One of the key success factors of the safe abortion program in Nepal is strong government leadership,” says Ipas Nepal Country Director Indira Basnett.

In fact, the government’s implementation of nationwide safe abortion services is one of several strategies that helped Nepal nearly halve its maternal mortality ratio in the last decade, reducing the number of women who die from pregnancy-related complications from 415 to 229 per 100,000 live births between 2000 and 2010. Such results earned Nepal a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Award for its commitment and progress toward achievement of MDG 5—the goal related to improving maternal health.

In recognition of September 28, Ipas Nepal is planning a national radio program to reach young people with reproductive health information.

“In a country like Nepal where there is less Internet use in the rural areas, a radio program through FM radio stations is the most effective method to reach the masses of young people and share information about safe abortion services,” explains Ipas Nepal youth coordinator Ram Chandra Khanal.

Disseminating information on where and how young people can access safe, high-quality reproductive health services is now a top priority in Nepal, since cultural taboos and stigma are often barriers to accessing services—especially for unmarried young people.

But compared to ten years ago when abortion was illegal, Khanal says today’s young people are much better informed: “There has been a vast improvement in knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and abortion among young people,” he says. “Nowadays, young people can speak out about their reproductive rights.”

Central American women suffer under total abortion bans

The heartening progress in Nepal since abortion was legalized stands in stark contrast to the dire circumstances facing women and men in Central America, where some of the world’s most restrictive abortion bans exist.

Nicaragua and El Salvador do not allow abortion even to save a woman’s life. Consequently, women accused of having abortions are sent to jail, along with the men and abortion providers accused of helping them. For instance, El Salvador’s Sonia Tabora spent seven years in prison—for having a miscarriage that was “misdiagnosed” as an abortion—because a doctor called the police when Tabora arrived bleeding and in shock at the hospital.

Such restrictive abortion bans also mean that sexual violence victims and very young girls are forced to either seek out clandestine and unsafe abortions or else carry their unwanted pregnancies to term, despite any risks to their physical or emotional health. According to a Nicaraguan Health Ministry report for years 2000-2010, the country’s total abortion ban has forced more than 367,000 girls and teenagers—many the victims of rape—to become mothers.

“Girls and women living in poverty are overwhelmingly the victims of restrictive abortion laws,” explains Kane. “The prosecution of women under these laws disproportionately affects poor, illiterate, marginalized women—and this is egregious.”

Reproductive rights advocates in Latin America are working diligently to change this picture—and their efforts aren’t going unnoticed. In June, the rapporteur for women’s rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited Nicaragua and stressed that the abortion ban must be repealed in order to fulfill the human rights of the nation’s women and girls. And the news just this week that Uruguay’s lawmakers voted to legalize abortion is evidence that politicians are getting the message: Safe, legal abortion is necessary to ensure women’s health and rights.

Ipas has long participated in the September 28 campaign in the Latin America region and is now collaborating with partners around the world for the Global Day of Action.

“We cannot wait for any more women to die or be injured,” says Ipas senior health systems advisor Katherine Turner, who is leading Ipas’s participation as a founding member of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion. “Now is the time to unite the pro-justice majority and build a global movement to make abortion safe, legal and accessible—for all women everywhere.”

To learn more about what Ipas and partners are planning for September 28, visit www.ipas.org/Sept28.