Magazine article Conscience

Religion, Custom and Colonialism: West Africa's Obstacles to Abortion Access

Magazine article Conscience

Religion, Custom and Colonialism: West Africa's Obstacles to Abortion Access

Article excerpt

FOR AFRICAN WOMEN, ASSERTING control over their bodies is a major challenge, with abortion one of the most contested areas related to their sexual and reproductive lives. While abortion should be considered a simple public health issue in the political realm, it is mostly seen through a cultural, moral or religious lens, which means the severe consequences of restrictive abortion laws on the lives and health of women are often not addressed. There is a general lack of consensus about the beginning of life based upon religion and custom. Because of antiabortion legislation daring from the colonial era, African women who decide to abort continue to pay a heavy toll in terms of mortality and morbidity. This article aims to analyze some of the social, legal and religious--specifically Muslim--aspects of the abortion debate. It focuses especially on the Francophone countries of West Africa, which forma geographical unit that was occupied in precolonial times by powerful empires (those of Mali and Ghana, for example), and which share the same cultural heritage, the same experience of French colonization and where Islamization dates back to the 11th century in some countries.

Except for Mauritania, all countries in West Africa are secular republics, but in every country, Islam and customary norms weigh heavily on family law and the status of women. For instance, sharia, a type of Islamic law, was adopted into the secular legal system in parts of Nigeria and Mali, while in Sierra Leone, Islamic law is only recognized for Muslims in certain circumstances, including questions of marriage and divorce. These norms also come into play when governments seek to legislate for the promotion of women's rights or when attempts are made to implement international and regional instruments on women's rights. However, religious and cultural precedents are wielded to the greatest effect when governments try to craft laws that would make any change in power relations within the private sphere. This includes provisions aiming to give women and girls more control over their bodies; greater freedom of choice of which person to marry; protection against violence, especially marital rape; and access to family planning or abortion. National policies related to these or any other women's rights are still strongly and negatively influenced by interpretations of religious and cultural norms that are unfriendly to women. This trend is even more worrisome today with the recent surge of Islamic extremism in the region, including in its jihadist form. (For example, the occupation of Northern Mali by the group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.)


In 2003, the African Union drafted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Article 14, which pertains to health and reproductive rights (see p. 38), reads: "States Parties shall ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health is respected and promoted. This includes among others: the right to control their fertility; and the protection of the reproductive rights of women by authorizing medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus." In 2007, the African Union drafted the Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for 2007-2010, also known as the Maputo Plan of Action, which has nine areas of action, one of which is the reduction of the incidence of unsafe abortion.

But these principles have not trickled down to abortion availability for women; according to World Health Organization data from 2011, the unsafe abortion rate in West Africa is 28 percent among women aged 15-44, and for the same women, maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion is 12 percent.

On paper, most governments are committed to reducing unsafe abortion. …

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