This blogpost speaks to the national burden of unsafe abortion in Sierra Leone. Those who are most vulnerable and least able to access safe services largely bear the cost. Millions of poor women, young women, rural women and their families bear the lasting consequences of unsafe abortion. It is a cost that gets lost in the debate about abortion; where the day-to-day impact unsafe abortion has on women’s lives is often missed. For some groups, especially religious and traditional groups, the distinction between unsafe and safe abortions is meaningless because for them abortion is unacceptable regardless of safety.
Abortion is prohibited in Sierra Leone, except where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger.
But of course people still seek ways to end pregnancies. Our maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Complications from unsafe abortion are one of the leading causes.
The current abortion act dates from 1861, a full century before Sierra Leone became independent. The old law banned abortion except when it was necessary to save the woman’s life, and people have been imprisoned for providing abortion services. We are extremely disappointed that efforts to review the law in 2016 were rejected. So, we continue to fight for legal change.
Unsafe abortion poses a risk across the lifespan. Adolescents facing an unintended pregnancy before finishing school or finding a stable partner are most likely to seek an end to the pregnancy. Adolescents are also at high risk of forced intercourse, perhaps the worst path to an unwanted pregnancy. These are young women who are likely to have fewer financial resources and a poor understanding of an often punitive health care system; hence the risks and potential complications they face are great.
We face stiff opposition from religious and traditional groups. This includes being labeled sinners, murderers and agents of darkness. Despite this, we are focused on our vision of a country where no woman or girl should die from unsafe abortion.
To achieve that vision, Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Organization (WHRRO) works to advance women’s sexual and reproductive rights by:
- providing comprehensive sexuality education for young people
- holding community awareness campaigns on prevention of unintended pregnancy
- hosting values clarification workshops on abortion
- meeting with members of parliament to push for the removal of the 1861 law in the hope of saving countless lives lost to unsafe abortion
In Sierra Leone, everyone knows someone who has been affected in some way by unsafe abortion. People have lost wives, daughters, and loved ones.
We want to see unsafe abortion addressed through law reform. People should look at what’s happening in the country, in terms of rape, incest and violence against women. Tackling this could solve a health problem in terms of high maternal mortality rates.
We know that health system costs to treat an unsafe abortion in Sierra Leone are twice as high as the costs of a safe procedure. How many lives could be saved if medical resources were applied to safe abortion, rather than to redressing the ravages of unsafe abortion?
I urge the readers of this post to continually remind themselves of the basic message of unsafe abortion. Look at the lengths women will go to end an unwanted pregnancy. Let our commitment be as great to ensure that women do not face unwanted pregnancies and that when they do, they do not have to put their very lives in jeopardy.