Kathmandu - Hundreds of poor, illiterate and desperate Nepalese women are being imprisoned, torn from their children and often rejected by their families upon release. The reason: a harsh law which equates abortion with homicide.
Take the case of 39-year-old farmer Lok Maya Adhikari, who served a year's sentence for infanticide. Married at 15 and widowed at 32 with five children, Adhikari told the Japa District Court in July 1995 that she became pregnant by a family-friend, who took her to a traditional birth-attendant for an illegal abortion.
She was arrested two days later and, unable to post bail, was held in detention until sentencing. Upon release she was ostracised by her husband's family, who retained custody of her children. The alleged father was also arrested but released after he denied responsibility for the pregnancy and the abortion.
Fortunately, Adhikari did not pay with her life - for Nepal's abortion law does not only punish, it kills and it maims. Every year thousands of women seek out back-alley abortionists whose methods include administering oral ingestion of chemicals and banned drugs. These 'quacks' are also known to insert into the vagina such downright dangerous substances as mercury, sharp pieces of glass and sticks pasted with herbal mixtures or cow dung.
Women die - often horribly - from haemorrhage, blood poisoning and uterine perforation. Should they survive, they risk chronic disability or sterility. And there are no mitigating circumstances under the law - even in cases where the health or life of the mother is threatened, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
There has been little debate - let alone resistance - to the law so far. But things could change for the better if Sunil Bhandari, a crusading politician, can make Parliament see things his way - he wants the law reformed.
The abortion law in Nepal is a bit of an anomaly. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities' (UNFPA) latest (1992) data shows that Nepal, a Hindu Kingdom, is one of eight countries with similar restrictions - most of the others are Catholic. In India, the only other Hindu-majority country, religion has been no bar to liberal abortion policies.
"Christians have shown stronger opposition, as missionaries have raised their concerns about abortion," says Shyam Thapa, technical advisor to Nepal's Ministries of Health and Population. So controversial is the debate that the Nepal representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Dr Al Nahi, while admitting that many women die of abortion-related complications, declined to comment on the law.
Abortion-related complications are largely responsible for Nepal's maternal mortality rate of 1,500 per 100,000, according to 1996 UNICEF statistics. The figure is the highest in South Asia, and nearly double that of the next in the list - Bangladesh. According to UNFPA advisor Dr Rita Thapa, more than half of maternal deaths in five major Kathmandu hospitals result from unsafe abortions.
Many abortion-related deaths go unrecorded, especially in rural areas. Outside of Kathmandu and other towns, the law is pursued even more zealously - often at the behest of inquisitive neighbours who alert police if they suspect a widowed or unmarried women is pregnant and then 'loses' the baby. Women's rights and legal activists are, however, unable to obtain accurate figures for the number of women who have been imprisoned under the law.
Signs of resistance are now apparent. A group of lawyers - the Forum for Women, Law and Development - is now providing a free legal service for affected women.
In general, nongovernmental organisations and women's groups have become more aware of reproductive health issues since the 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo and the 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing. Lawmaker Sunil Bhandari, who is President of the Family Planning Association of Nepal, went to his Nepal Congress Party in July 1996 for permission to present a bill calling for change.
The bill's recommendations include legalising abortions carried out by registered physicians in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy and thereafter in special cases like rape, incest, life-threatening situations and where the foetus is diagnosed as being severely handicapped.
The Congress party refused it in committee, arguing that its passage would lower the morals of young people. Bhandari's move to revive it - this time with the support of lawyers and doctors - has sparked off rare media interest on the issue. The original bill is being re-presented in Parliament this year just as a survey in Kathmandu indicates that many believe abortion should be legalised with some restrictions.
There is another hopeful sign: Nepal's newly-formed Ministry of Women and Social Welfare has created 12 sub-committees, including on reproductive health, based on the recommendations of the Beijing Women's Conference.
Women, the conference said, should have access to quality services to deal with complications arising from abortions. And governments, it added, ought to consider reviewing laws that punish women for undergoing illegal abortions.
Mar. 20, 1997
Investigative Research International
Sock-Foon C. MacDougall, Ph.D.
Tel: (301) 552-9314
Fax: (301) 552-4465