No woman takes the decision to have an abortion dancing and singing

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By Diakhoumba Gassama, Vice-President, West African Network of Young Women Leaders

This post is a translated transcription of a talk by Diakhoumba Gassama at a debate organised by WATHI, Citizens Think-Tank of West Africa.  You can watch the original in French here.

Today, in 2017, there are innumerable reports and studies carried out – by government, by researchers in universities, by the UN, by the African Union – on reproductive health. What does this research tell us? In many countries, especially in West Africa, women, whether married or not, do not have access to family planning services. Girls and boys, adolescents and young people do not have or cannot access integral sexual education. In the context of Senegal, a majority Muslim country, there are many Muslim intellectuals and writers today who remind us that in the origins of Islam, contrary to other religions, two key points are acknowledged (in the context of marriage): firstly, that human beings are sexual beings; secondly, that sexual desire is one of the most profound feelings of the human being.

However, there is a problem with proscribing abstinence before marriage. In our country, marriage is far from free. The young population doesn’t live in socio-economic conditions that would allow them to marry when and how they like. So, what is effectively being said is: you must stay abstinent before you marry, but in order to marry, you must wait because you do not have the financial means.

We mustn’t forget that there is a high rate of sexual violence in our country. Here in Senegal, you cannot open a newspaper without reading: ‘Young girl violated by her uncle… students sexually abused’, etc. Saying to a women with an unwanted pregnancy, ‘sort yourself out’ is not a solution. Whether they are sexually active or victims of sexual violence, saying ‘sort yourself out’ is effectively telling them to have a clandestine abortion.

According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Health in Senegal every day five Senegalese women die from clandestine abortion. It is one of the primary causes of maternal mortality in Africa. If there is not a clandestine abortion, what happens? There is an unwanted child. We are seeing a huge increase in the rate of infanticide. Infanticide is the primary cause of imprisonment of women in our country, and in the region. An alternative consequence is the abandonment of children, which means that the children become the responsibility of the state or the community.

It is important to remember that Senegal is one of the world’s regional, continental and international leaders as regards the ratification and signing of international conventions on human rights. In August 2015, Senegal was called to account by the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women regarding unsafe abortion; in order for Senegal to fully implement its regional, sub-regional and international commitments, they said, it must decriminalise abortion.

A country that has suffered from war as well as from the Ebola epidemic, and is much poorer than ours according to the development indexes, is Sierra Leone: our brother country and friend. In 2015, a law that legalizes abortion was unanimously adopted in their national assembly. Why? Because the Sierra Leonean authorities and the Sierra Leonean civil society want to save the lives of women and girls and to save the future of their country [editors note: this law has not yet been signed in by the president].

It is important to say that there is no lightheartedness in choosing abortion. No woman is dancing and singing when she takes the decision to have an abortion: it is one of the most traumatizing things that can happen to a woman, especially an African woman in a context of clandestine abortion. Imagine the young woman, or the mother of a family, who asks what is going to happen to her in the process of getting a clandestine abortion? Will it go wrong? Will I be able to have more children? What place will I have in society?

What is the future of this issue? The UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights has declared that the right to abortion is a human right. It is a human right because it is a question of the dignity of the person. We cannot accept a situation in which women find themselves being accused of being murderers. I have read comments from people who say ‘to decriminalize abortion is to permit homicide’. In reality, to criminalize abortion is to permit infanticide. And that is the important point.

My colleagues in the Association of Women Jurists have struggled for years to find a juridical solution in working to reform our repressive law. In Senegal, a country of human rights, accessing abortion is limited to when the health of the pregnant women is in danger. Many people say: ‘So, it’s already in place’. However, the decision to allow an abortion must be taken by a committee of doctors in Dakar; if they agree, the woman still has to find a willing doctor to carry out the abortion.

And here is my challenge to everyone who watches this video, find me one woman in Senegal who has been able to abort a pregnancy legally.



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Media Guidelines for Writing on Abortion

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DO use bona fide evidence from the country or region you are covering, so that your publication is grounded in the most accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date statistical information and health data. The best sources of international and country data are the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute. At country level, national health statistics may also be available. Where abortion is legally restricted, statistics are estimates but a lot of work has been done to try to make them accurate.

DON’T repeat false information that abortion is risky. Abortion is one of the safest medical and surgical procedures with the support of a trained person, who may be a community health worker, a nurse, a midwife, a general practitioner or an obstetrician–gynaecologist. Abortion is unsafe if it is provided by an untrained person who does not know how to do a safe surgical procedure or who offers fake, ineffective or dangerous pills or other dangerous methods, or does not know how to use medical abortion pills safely and effectively.

DO report that bona fide medical abortion pills, mifepristol+misoprostol, or misoprostol alone, are very safe. Indeed, they are so safe and so important for women’s health that they are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Misoprostol is also on the list for prevention and treatment of post-partum haemorrhage and for treating incomplete abortion, which may occur after a delivery, a spontaneous miscarriage or an induced abortion.

DON’T include photos of very late pregnancies when the article is about abortion. This is completely misguiding as most abortions take place in the first trimester or early second trimester of pregnancy. Avoid photos of very pregnant bellies which exclude the woman’s head and face and the rest of her body. This robs pregnant women of their humanity as persons and treats them as vessels.

DO acknowledge that most abortions happen early, long before a woman is showing any visible outward signs of pregnancy. Make sure your article has photographs of people, events, action, posters that call for safe abortion as a public health issue and also as a human rights issue. Acknowledge that women have a human right to life and to health, and that unsafe abortion is a serious public health problem, responsible for at least one in six maternal deaths.

DON’T allow a photo of a fetus in a womb that leaves out the woman carrying it, because this:

  1. treats the embryo/fetus as if it is independent and not part of a woman on whose life it is completely dependent;
  2. misrepresents the fetus as a fully formed infant when it is not;
  3. associates the outlet you are writing for with the anti-abortion movement, even though you do not wish to imply any association.

DO highlight that abortion is a women’s health issue and should not be governed by criminal law. Do report cases of women and safe abortion providers who have been arrested, tried and imprisoned for abortion and publish details of efforts to free them. Use your writing to challenge laws that criminalise abortion, because they kill women.

DON’T describe abortion as unusual or atypical. Abortion is one of the world’s most frequent medical procedures/processes. One-in-three to one-in-five women has an abortion in her lifetime. 56.3 million women have abortions annually. This tells us that abortion is an integral part of being female/having a uterus/having sex with a man/being able to get pregnant. These numbers speak to the need to normalise abortion.

DO challenge abortion stigma. Stigma is stirred up by those who are opposed to abortion, it is not a social fact. Women who have abortions believe they are a necessity. Abortion is a responsible decision when women feel they cannot support/cope with a child at that moment. Without a choice, pregnancy and motherhood would be forced on women – that would be immoral. After abortion there is relief above all, because women can get their lives back again.

DON’T say that only those who object to abortion are ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-family’.   The same women who have abortions also have children. These are not mutually exclusive. Those who support the right to safe abortion are pro-women, pro-family and pro-choice as well. Abortion and motherhood are not opposites; they happen to the same women. They happen to our mothers, our wives, our daughters, our sisters and our friends.

DO frame abortion as a legitimate and positive choice and credit women’s reproductive decision-making. If pregnancy and abortion are safe, women can decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy. If abortion is unsafe and illegal, only those who are opposed to abortion have a choice.

DON’T imply that only a ‘certain type’ of woman has abortions or use language that sets them apart from the rest of society.  Show the rationality of women’s decisions – precisely because they want to be responsible about bringing children into the world.

DO publish personal testimonies of women who want to share their stories so others can know what to expect, know they are not alone and feel reassured. The absence of the perspectives of women who have had an abortion can lead to narrow representations of abortion and deny the complexities of women’s experiences.

DON’T glorify or dramatize the experience of abortion. Use testimony in a responsible and sensitive way. Anonymity may be best in many settings. Don’t expose women to danger by naming them in telling their stories.

DO use accurate images of the reality of women’s lives and of those who seek abortions: for example, married women with children often have abortions, as well as young, single women. Some adolescents may be pregnant due to sexual abuse; others have consensual relationships with boyfriends but may not have used contraception or condoms effectively and are too young to become mothers.

DO tell the truth about the tragedy of death and injury from dangerous abortions in countries where abortion is against the law. Do share positive stories about the health professionals who provide safe abortion services because they save women’s lives, and we are grateful to them. Do not forget that men also cause unintended and unwanted pregnancies, but they do not have to pay with their lives for it.

DO provide information on where girls and women can have access to a safe abortion in case it is ever needed – including how to find a safe abortion provider, phone numbers and social media addresses for safe abortion information hotlines, websites and contact details for clinics and pro-choice groups that provide accurate information on abortion and support universal access to safe abortion for everyone who requests it, because they have good reasons.

We’ve put together these guidelines as a starting point – if you have any suggested additions or changes please email us at OR

You can also start a conversation with us on facebook or twitter!

On World Day of Social Justice, why is access to safe abortion a social justice issue?

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A socially just society is one where human rights are manifest and in which opportunities, wealth and privilege are equally distributed. The United Nations World Day of Social Justice site says that social justice struggles are those that “remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.”

Abortion is a social justice issue in that criminalising, restricting or stigmatising abortion creates barriers that women with unwanted pregnancies face in exercising body autonomy. Often these barriers are even greater for women of colour, young  women and poor women.

Specifically, the human rights outlined in Articles 3,4, and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied or violated when access to safe abortion is restricted.

Article 3, “Right to life, liberty and security of person”, is denied to women whose pregnancies present a serious risk to their lives in countries where abortion is illegal with no exceptions. These include El Salvador, Malta, Vatican, Chile, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Even in countries where abortion is allowed under limited conditions, women’s lives, liberty and security are often placed at risk because the restrictions mean that few legal abortions are in fact provided. Criminalising abortion does not decrease the incidence of abortion; instead, it increases the incidence of unsafe abortion as women are forced to seek services that are extra-legal and may be unsafe. Restrictions on abortion almost always affect poor and young women disproportionately as wealthier women can afford to pay  for safe care.

Article 4 says, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”. Forcing women to continue pregnancies that they do not want, have children and become mothers is a form of forced labour. The day that was chosen as the international day of action for the decriminalisation of abortion in 1990, 28 September, was historically the Day of the Free Womb, the day on which the children born to slave mothers in Brazil were freed in 1871. The decriminalisation of abortion is still called for every year on 28 September,  as International Safe Abortion Day. While most women do have children at some moment in their lives, it must be up to the individual  to decide whether, when and how many children to have. To force women to have children they do not wish to have is a form of slavery.

Finally denial of access to abortion goes against Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Report of Juan Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, presented to the Human Rights Council’s 31st session in 2016, included the following:

Where access to abortion is restricted by law, maternal mortality increases as women are forced to undergo clandestine abortions in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. Short- and long-term physical and psychological consequences also arise due to unsafe abortions and when women are forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will (A/66/254). Such restrictive policies disproportionately impact marginalized and disadvantaged women and girls. Highly restrictive abortion laws that prohibit abortions even in cases of incest, rape or fetal impairment or to safeguard the life or health of the woman violate women’s right to be free from torture and ill-treatment (A/HRC/22/53, CEDAW/C/OP.8/PHL/1). 

The denial of safe, legal abortion is denial of human rights. This is why access to abortion is a social justice issue. Every woman with an unwanted pregnancy should have the right to a safe abortion, without discrimination, barriers or restrictions.

Image credit: © Andrea Pippins

To create this piece, Andrea Pippins was inspired by the Tuskuteesh movement and their efforts to break the silence surrounding all kinds of sexual violence against Arab women. Source: AWID