Tragic Epidemic: Unsafe Abortion in Senegal


When Adama Tall, a 29-year-old woman
working as a maid in Dakar, told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he
allegedly threatened to beat her and forced her to take pills and a
drink concocted from green powder. Hours later, in severe pain, she
delivered a fetus — she doesn’t know if it was alive — which he took
away, saying he would bury it. When she fell unconscious the next day,
Tall’s mother brought her to the hospital. There she remained until
well enough to be transferred to jail — charged with infanticide. After
four years’ detention in prison, she was found guilty of abortion — which
carries a maximum penalty of two years — and was then released.

In
Senegal, abortion is illegal except to save a woman’s life. But doctors,
midwives and traditional healers perform abortions, as do affected women
themselves.

"You
can’t imagine the number of abortions that take place in Dakar,"
says one ob-gyn who performs the procedures on nights and weekends.
"Every day, dozens upon dozens." He has a private practice and charges
the equivalent of $375, in a country where a servant’s monthly salary
is roughly $36.

For
the poor, the procedure usually entails dangerous do-it-yourself experiments.
Women drink teas of boiled coins, seek injections of drugs such as acetate
and oxytocin, and prepare cocktails of neem leaves and malaria drugs.
The World Health Organization estimates 30,000 women die in Africa each
year from unsafe abortion. In Dakar, word on the street is that surgical
abortion can kill you, and the link between abortion and fatality defines
Senegal’s reproductive reality.

Those
so poor and socially isolated they cannot or will not access the underground-abortion
loop sometimes hide their pregnancies and kill the newborns. Recently,
a single mother of five said she had been raped and hid her pregnancy
for shame. When she had a stillbirth, she buried it in a neighborhood
cemetery. Her brother called the police, and she is currently in jail
awaiting trial for infanticide.

Infanticide
occupies a prominent place in public consciousness, serving as a projection
of society’s confusion about abortion. Women who are accused of committing
infanticide routinely make headlines; courtrooms are packed for such
trials. Meanwhile, on any given day, news of a baby’s corpse found
in a local dumpster travels through Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods.

In
2006, dozens of women were arrested for infanticide (which also includes
abortion after 180 days of pregnancy). But only 23 cases were deemed
solid enough to warrant a criminal court trial. The women were jailed,
serving four years’ detention on average, awaiting trial at a special
session for serious crimes held only once or twice a year.

This
deplorable situation persists, although in November 2005 the African
Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa went into effect. In
Senegal, as in the other 14 signatory countries, women were guaranteed
the right to legal abortion for
pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and to protect the woman’s
mental and physical health. Nevertheless,
it would be difficult to overstate the gap between international charters
and the reality on the ground in Dakar. Many people in Senegal haven’t
even heard of the Protocol, and Senegalese law is still, as it has been
for years, "catching up."

In
the meantime, the nightmare epidemic of unsafe abortion persists.

This article was first published by Ms. Magazine.

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