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Activists: Senegal's Abortion Laws Lead Women to Infanticide, Prison


Aminata, 39, spent four years in prison for infanticide. She was abused by a cousin following the death of her husband, and did not want to keep the baby. Thies, Senegal, June 8 2018. (S. Christensen for VOA)

Infanticide is the second most important cause of female incarceration in Senegal. Rights groups, who have raised concern over the conditions of women's detention, blame the country's restrictive laws on abortion. Many are calling on the government to loosen its legislation.

Aminata, a name she chose to hide her true identity, was asleep with her two youngest children when police came to her home in the town of Mbour in the middle of the night.

She had given birth two days earlier and a neighbor had seen her bury the baby. Aminata claims it was stillborn.

She said she was impregnated by a cousin, who took advantage of her situation after she lost her husband and moved to Mbour to find work.

"I did not want the baby," she said.

Aminata was arrested on the spot and served four years in prison for infanticide, one year shorter than the typical sentence. She was released in 2015.

After drug-related offenses, infanticide is the biggest cause of female incarceration in Senegal. Rights groups estimated that in 2015, almost one in five women were arrested on charges of infanticide.

In the Thies detention center, where Aminata served her time, this figure nears 30 percent.

Joseph Faye is a lawyer for the Senegal Human Rights League, a local partner of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights which — among other things — advocates for legalized abortion around the world.

He said female prisons are overpopulated, and the country's strict abortion laws are largely to blame.

Senegal is one of 10 countries in Africa where abortion is prohibited in all circumstances.

There are strong feelings against abortion in Senegal, both in society and at the government level. In a nation that is 96 percent Muslim, Imams speak out forcefully against the practice. Women's rights advocates say there is also the cultural perception that allowing women to have abortions on demand will encourage them to be promiscuous.

Women in Senegal can legally terminate their pregnancies if three doctors certify that her life is risk — a task activists say is almost impossible to complete within the abortion time-limit.

In the female quarter of the Thies detention center, women chat quietly amongst themselves as they embroider tablecloths and napkins.

Prison officials say there are never more than 30 detainees at one time, but both rights groups and former convicts claim the real number is higher. Aminata recalls sharing a cell with more than sixty others.

A guard bolts the door of the Thies detention center, one of Senegal's 38 prisons, where almost 30 percent of female convicts are charged with infanticide, in Thies, Senegal, June 1, 2018. (S. Christensen for VOA)
A guard bolts the door of the Thies detention center, one of Senegal's 38 prisons, where almost 30 percent of female convicts are charged with infanticide, in Thies, Senegal, June 1, 2018. (S. Christensen for VOA)

UN takes issue

The United Nations has taken issue with the conditions of women's detention. In a 2015 report, the world body says Senegal's prisons are not adapted to women, with no facilities to handle pregnancies or accommodate children.

Awa Tounkara works for the Association of Senegalese Women Lawyers, an organization advocating the legalization of abortion in cases of rape and incest, or when a woman's health is at risk. She said 'there really shouldn't be any women in jail," considering their role in society.

She said her association is pushing the government to consider alternative penalties that would allow women to serve their sentences outside prison.

"This would be better for their families and for the education of their children," she added.

Aminata was not allowed to take her children to prison. They were collected by her eldest daughter and taken back to their native village, where they stayed until her release.

Shunned by her family, Aminata now lives in a corrugated iron shed on her elder brother's mango plantation, 12 kilometers from Mbour.

Aissatou Kebe, a program manager for Tostan, a Dakar-based NGO that helps reintegrate former detainees, said being arrested for infanticide "is something that will continue to haunt you for the rest of your life. These women are rejected by their families and rejected by society."

But Kebe does not think loosening abortion laws would have a significant impact.

"Many women are illiterate," she said. "They would not even think there could be an alternative to giving birth and smothering the baby."

She is pushing for more access to contraceptives as a solution.

Family Planning 2020 says fewer than 16 percent of women in Senegal were using a modern method of contraception last year.

Aminata believes her fate would have been different, had she had more options.

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