A 10-year old Senegalese girl who became pregnant with twins after being raped by a neighbor is being forced to continue with her pregnancy, thanks to her country’s stringent restrictions on abortion. Human rights advocates have been trying to pressure the government to allow the girl to seek abortion care, but they’ve been unsuccessful so far.
“She is going to have to go through with the pregnancy. The best we can do is keep up pressure on the authorities to ensure the girl gets regular scans and free medical care,” Fatou Kiné Camara, the president of the Senegalese women lawyers’ association, told the Guardian.
Camara explained that under Senegal’s current abortion law, which is one of the harshest among African nations, requires three doctors to certify that a woman will die immediately unless she ends her pregnancy. But poor women in the country are hardly ever able to visit a doctor, let alone three in quick succession.
The country’s abortion ban is based on an archaic penal code that dates back to 1810. The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed concern about the draconian law, pointing out that it’s leading to a particularly high rates of illegal abortions and maternal deaths. Doctors who perform abortions, and women who seek them, can be thrown in jail for years. Hundreds of women die from unsafe abortion procedures in Senegal every year.
Camara’s organization is pressuring the Senegalese government to bring its abortion law in line with the African charter on women’s rights, which calls for legal abortion services in cases when a woman has been a victim of rape or incest, when a woman’s life is in danger, or when a woman’s mental health is in jeopardy. Although Senegal ratified that charter a decade ago, those changes to its total abortion ban haven’t been implemented. That disproportionately impacts the poor residents of the country, who can’t afford to seek out illegal services at a private clinic.
The 10-year-old rape victim is an example of this type of economic stratification, too. “Senegal must legalize medicalized abortion so that we never see any more cases like hers,” Camara told the Guardian. “Had we had time and had the girl’s parents been willing, we could have asked a judge to consider guaranteeing immunity from prosecution to an [abortion] doctor. However, the family is poor; the process is difficult enough for them. They were just pleased when the rapist was arrested.”
This issue is certainly not specific to Senegal. A similar situation sparked considerable controversy in Chile last year, when an 11-year-old rape victim was not permitted to end her pregnancy. And there was a massive outcry when a dying Salvadoran woman was initially denied the abortion she needed to save her life, despite the fact that her fetus wasn’t viable. Ireland was recently pressured to slightly loosen its laws in this area after a 31-year-old woman died as a result of being denied an emergency abortion. Across the entire globe, an estimated 47,000 women die each year because they lack access to safe, legal abortion care.
Harsh bans on reproductive health services are out of step with the international community’s stance on women’s rights. Just last week, public health and human rights leaders from over 30 countries issued a new resolution on abortion rights, calling on governments to decriminalize the procedure to prevent women from dying. And earlier this year, the United Nations encouraged countries to remove unnecessary restrictions on abortion to help safeguard women’s fundamental human rights.