The Price of Senegal’s Strict Anti-Abortion Laws
The Mbeubeuss landfill, on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, feels almost volcanic to visitors. Mountainous piles of waste encircle wide craters, where trash fires spew smoke and spit ash into the sky. The odor is nauseating: decaying foods and clothes, burnt plastic and tires. Sporadically, the scent of decomposing human flesh emerges from the fetor. The bodies are those of unwanted newborn children discarded in the city, gathered by trash collectors, and found by workers at the dump. El Hajj Diallo, the president of the landfill’s collective of waste pickers, told us that, because he has found so many dead babies here, he wants Senegal to legalize abortion, at least for victims of rape and incest.
Nearly one in five women in prison in Senegal in 2015 had been imprisoned for infanticide, according to human-rights groups. Supporters of abortion rights blame Senegal’s near total ban on abortion for the newborn deaths. “We tell ourselves that if someone had the possibility to get rid of the pregnancy, they would not turn to infanticide,” Amy Sakho, a lawyer with the Association of Senegalese Women Lawyers, an organization pushing for the legalization of abortion in cases of rape or incest, told us.
Conservative social norms, religion, and the value placed on large families in Senegal and other West African countries have resulted in broad public support for strict legal restrictions on abortion, many of which date back to laws imposed on the region by France and other colonial powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Senegal, abortion is illegal in all cases except to save the woman’s life; approval for inducing “therapeutic abortions” must come from two doctors, one of whom is independently assigned by the courts. Giving advice on where or how to access abortion is a criminal offense.
Ina, who asked that her real name not be used, is twenty-seven years old. She told us that she grew up in her father’s home in Kaolack, a rural inland region. After elementary school, she moved to her mother’s cramped apartment in Keur Mbaye Fall, one of Dakar’s sprawling, under-class suburbs. We spoke to her in one of the family’s two bedrooms. The floors were concrete and the streets were sand, half of the walls were unfinished.
Upset by the poverty her family faced, Ina quit school to help earn money. At thirteen, she started working as a domestic servant. Ina lived at her boss’s home during the week and earned about seventy dollars a month. Several years later, a security guard in the neighborhood where she worked started harassing her, Ina said. One day, he raped her. Then she missed her period. Soon after, the guard disappeared.
As her belly grew, Ina shrouded herself, hiding the pregnancy and her inner panic. In Senegal, to be pregnant outside of marriage is unthinkable; to be raped is shameful. “Here, to have a child outside of marriage is something very serious. You will be very, very poorly viewed by society,” Imam Mbaye Niang, a Deputy in Senegal’s National Assembly, who opposes abortion, told us. “Women who find themselves in this situation prefer to choke the baby than to suffer the pressure from society.”
Some families disown their daughters, which is akin to a social death in a society where extended family plays an integral role in daily life. Women are expected not to have sex until they wed, and only a quarter of sexually active, unmarried women are using contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based group that advocates for reproductive rights.
Senegalese groups attempting to reform the laws that restrict abortion face wide opposition. Debates regarding the issue are emotionally fraught and influenced by religious sentiment. Senegal is ninety-five per cent Muslim, and, while the government is technically secular, powerful religious families are highly influential. Whether and when a Senegalese woman can get an abortion is often a theological debate.
Imam Mame Mactar Guèye, an activist with Jamra, an Islamic N.G.O. that opposes abortion, said that his group was defending Senegal from outside influence. “Very powerful feminist movements started to put a strong pressure on parliamentarians,” he told us. In an effort to counter the calls for change, Jamra lobbies religious and government leaders to oppose any effort to change Senegal’s abortion laws.
When Ina went into labor, she delivered alone, in a small bathroom at her mother’s home. What happened next is unclear. Ina said that she remembers covering the corpse in a wax-print wrap skirt and leaving it in an unfinished building near her house. Three days later, the police knocked at her door, surprising her mother, who knew of neither the pregnancy nor the death. Ina said she told the police, “I did it, but I don’t know what pushed me to it. It wasn’t my intention.”
The police took Ina to the station. Doctors examined her to verify that she had recently delivered. Investigators accused her of murdering her infant. Infanticide cases generally require an autopsy of the baby, but circumstantial evidence is also heavily weighed. Ina spent five years in jail, the typical sentence.
There were an estimated fifty-one thousand five hundred abortions in Senegal in 2012, and “virtually all of these procedures were clandestine and unsafe,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. Seventy-three per cent of poor, rural women who underwent abortions had complications, compared to a third of non-poor, urban women.
Senegal is a signatory to the Maputo Protocol, a women’s-rights addendum to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. It calls for the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life or mental or physical health is endangered. It is also permissible to terminate a pregnancy when the life of the fetus is at risk. If the Protocol were applied in Senegal, Ina would have been permitted to abort the pregnancy following the rape. She said if she had the option, she would have.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall said in 2015 that he may eventually support legalization of abortion in cases of rape or incest. But the process is slow. Sakho, the lawyer pushing for legalization, said, “We are always optimistic.” The legislation is not yet before the National Assembly.
Malick Ibnou Anass Camara, an examining judge who sees many infanticide cases, said that he favors limited reform. “It’s a debate, but in any case we must not leave the door open for abortion anarchy,” he told us. “The problem we must avoid if we legalize abortion is that it opens the door to anarchy. It must have very strict conditions.”
Ina came home from jail a few months ago. She still imagines the face of her son floating in front of her. “I don’t know if it is my fault or not,” she said. “All I wish is that God forgives me.”
Reporting and photography for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.