News The African Way

Selective Laws Against Nigerian Women’s Reproductive Rights

By Odimegwu Onwumere

Stephen Luka and Justina Dusu have been locked in a romantic bliss for years. They have always been on top of their affair. Many who have been watching them, felt they were destined for each other. But, that was not to be. The real test of their love affair came when Justina missed her period. That development did not go down well with Stephen. He was not the Romeo watchers thought him to be. He felt terribly bad since Justina broke the news of her pregnancy to him.

Apparently not ready to father a child yet, he pushed for abortion. But unsafe abortion is outlawed in Nigeria. For Elizabeth Dwyer of Women & Girls Hub, a group concerned about the plight of women, “Nigeria’s abortion law is based on the same 1861 Offences Against Persons Act that governs Northern Ireland’s rules.”

Last February, at a Jos High Court, Stephen’s lover-girl who resides at Foron, in Barkin-Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau State, literally shocked the world when she alleged that the lover-boy killed her sister for refusing to undergo an unsafe abortion.

That has been the tragedy of many young women across the country. And according to Dwyer, “Each year, Nigerian women undergo 1.25 million abortions, with nearly all performed clandestinely, resulting in 500,000 health complications.

“Restrictive abortion legislation bans the procedure except when prescribed by a doctor to save a woman’s life – in a country that has such low contraceptive access, only 10 percent of married women use birth control.”

Over the years, connoisseurs have been claiming that unsafe abortion has become one of the major factors that cause maternal deaths in Nigeria. They have, therefore, been agitating for the individualisation of family planning (FP) services in the country that prides itself as the giant of Africa.

Those who know better say unsafe abortion causes irremediable damage to the women. In Nigeria, many are of the view that it is an act of infringing on women’s reproductive rights since abortion is technically not legal in the country.

In search of a way out of the reproductive gender gap in the country, on August 17, 1991, Campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancy (CAUP) was launched. It is a multi-disciplinary initiative focusing attention on the health problems of women caused by unsafe abortion in Nigeria.

Since then, the political environment in Nigeria has been a complex and volatile one, with strong religious and ethnic tensions and a very conservative public attitude towards abortion. For instance, Post Abortion Care (PAC), a group concerned with women’s reproductive right in the country, says it’s so bad that reproductive rights of women are not respected in the country. Reproductive rights activists have been warning against what they described as ‘’archaic laws’’ on abortion in Nigeria.

Often, health agencies talking about unsafe abortions, are accused of operating measures to promote unwholesome behaviour in the country. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was caught up in a hullabaloo of orchestrating promotional abortion movement for young ladies who were liberated from Boko Haram, some two years ago.

UNFPA’s scribe in Nigeria, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin was compelled to make a comment that the agency will not push for the support of abortion. Many sensitisation campaigns have been held in this regard, but the authorities have not deemed it wise and right to make abortion a legal issue. In October 2015, media men were trained on “Women’s Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights” for three days in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.

Hauwa Shekarau, a lawyer, says the training workshop was aimed at enlightening people on sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. “The abortion law in Nigeria is restrictive and it is only permitted to save the life of the woman if she is in a danger. But those that do not fall under this legal restriction are left to their own devices.

“Also, the cost of carrying out this procedure is high, and those who are not economically empowered resort to quacks, making unsafe abortion the most silent and persistent cause of maternal mortality in Nigeria,’’ she says.

A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the University Teaching Hospital, Gwagwlada, Dr Godwin Akaba said at a public presentation, “lack of family planning tools is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality, as it results into unintended pregnancy, which could lead to unsafe abortion.

“The magnitude of maternal mortality and morbidity represents perhaps the greater social injustice of our time. Our ability to address these preventable causes of maternal mortality is but a symptom, a tragic symptom of a larger social injustice of discrimination.”

Dr Ejike Orji of Association for Advancement of Family Planning, (AAFP), sufficed to what Dr Akaba added, “Unsafe abortion is dangerous with such resultant effects like ‘bleeding, infections and infertility’ in most cases.”

Since September 2015, the UN has bared its stance, saying that Nigeria should rescind her abortion laws because it’s part of setbacks in furthering abortion and sexual rights for adolescents in Africa.

“The UNFPA told Nigeria to take back its reservations on “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” in a new UN development agreement,” said a UN report. It is hoped by opinion leaders that the authorities should see abortion beyond the scope of religion, politics and culture.

They believed that safe abortion would work in the interest of shaping “agenda and ideology” for the interest of socialisation that would help people’s understanding of the issue. Many experts have frowned at lack of family planning in the country. They believed that “In many countries, a comprehensive approach to addressing the problem of unsafe abortion has evolved, which rests principally on three stands: liberalisation of the abortion law, provision of safe, available and effective abortion care services and availability of contraceptive information and services.”

For them, “advocacy efforts need to address not only visible power, i.e. the making and enforcing of formal laws and regulations, structures, authorities, institutions and the procedures of decision-making, but also how and by whom the agenda is set.

“The latter includes the ways in which powerful people and institutions maintain their influence, by controlling access to decision-making and excluding and devaluing the concerns and representation of less powerful groups.”

Odimegwu Onwumere is a Poet and Writer based in Rivers State. Tel: 08057778358. E-mail:

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