Senegalese health workers and activists are demanding women be allowed access to medically safe abortions in certain cases, such as rape or under-age pregnancies. "Secret" abortions are now one of the leading causes of maternal death in Senegal and forced pregnancies have led to an increase in infanticide.
The World Health Organization says an estimated one in 10 pregnant women who die in Senegal are believed to perish due to complications from illegal or unsafe abortions.
Sixty percent of illegal abortions in Senegal are done on women between 19 and 25 years old. Experts here say many women and girls, who may be unmarried or have been raped, feel they have no other solution.
Dr. Amy Ndao Fall, the president of Senegal’s Association of Female Doctors, says secret abortions are getting more common.
“The acts are becoming more and more serious. Before you had to look for someone to perform an abortion, but now with the internet, women look for information and try to do it themselves. So as doctors we are quite concerned," said Fall.
Abortion has been illegal in Senegal since before the country became independent from France. An exception was added to the law in 1967 that allows for a medical abortion to be performed if the life of the mother is in imminent danger.
But even then, three different doctors have to testify in court on behalf of the woman before the abortion can be performed. Experts say it is time consuming and often too expensive for women.
“Laws are meant to protect citizens. Laws are meant to save the life of mothers, to preserve women’s physical health, their mental health," said Fatou Kine Camara, president of the Senegalese Lawyers Association. "But is this the case with the abortion law? No. In fact, it’s the opposite. In Senegal, it’s much too restrictive."
Camara said women in Senegal who perform self-abortions can face up to 10 years in prison and up to $200 in fines. Doctors found to be aiding women with illegal abortions can have their licenses suspended or revoked, and face similar prison sentences and fines.
Camara added that restrictive abortion laws have also led to an increase in infanticide, particularly among the poor, as mothers who give birth to an unwanted child have few other options in Senegal.
Local media often report on babies being dumped in wells or drowned.
Religious beliefs in Senegal, where 92 percent of the country is Muslim, are a key barrier to making abortion more legal. While Islam allows for the use of pregnancy prevention measures, it forbids the termination of a fetus.
Health workers are now pushing for better access to emergency contraception, such as the morning after pill, which is allowed in certain cases, such as rape, under Islamic law.
“Today, at the level of the work I do in my pharmacy, regarding the reality I see in the local neighborhoods, regarding the reality of the lack of discussion of safe sex within families, regarding the needs of young people, we think that emergency contraception could have a real impact on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies,” said Mamadou Sow, a pharmacist in Dakar.
According to the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception, only 0.2 percent of women in Senegal say they have ever used emergency contraception. Just eight percent of women of reproductive age use a modern form of contraception.
Senegal’s Ministry of Health says it supports family planning activities and is working to educate people about the dangers of secret abortions. It is now looking into the possibility of allowing for safe, medical abortions under certain circumstances, but says no law is on the table.