Nepal: Maternal Mortality and The Criminalization of Abortion—The Death of Bimla

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Action Number: 
10.2
IMPORTANT: This archived action campaign has been completed or discontinued, and the information contained in it may not be current. Please see Take Action for current and ongoing campaigns.
Date: 
1 May 1998

BimlaThe 20-year-old Nepali woman in this picture is shown with her husband and two daughters, aged one and three years old. Shortly after this picture was taken, Bimla became pregnant again. Harassed by her in-laws, who feared that Bimla would have yet another daughter when they wanted a grandson, Bimla sought an abortion. The "back street" abortionist she found inserted two capsules in her vagina. The next day, after painful contractions, Bimla started bleeding. The bleeding continued for three days until Bimla died. The hospital record states the cause of death as septicemia because of induced illicit abortion. It is estimated that twelve women die every day in Nepal as a result of pregnancy and that half of these deaths, six every day, result from abortion-related complications. In June 1996, Equality Now highlighted the case of Lok Maya Adhikari, a thirty-eight year old Nepali farmer who was imprisoned for one year on the charge of having had an abortion. The alleged father of the pregnancy, Bhim Prashad Poudel, was also arrested, but denied responsibility for the pregnancy and the abortion and was found not guilty. Lok Maya Adhikari was released after serving her one year sentence in full.

In Nepal, any act of abortion is punishable by imprisonment. The anti-abortion laws, classified under "Homicide", do not allow for exceptions, even in cases where the health or life of the mother is threatened, or the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. For women, and for those who perform abortions, the penalty ranges from three months to three years' imprisonment. As a result of the anti-abortion laws, hundreds of women have served prison terms. Every year thousands more suffer through extremely dangerous "back street" abortions, methods for which include the oral ingestion of chemical dyes and herbal medicines, and the insertion of foreign substances into the cervix such as mercury, sharp pieces of glass, or sticks pasted with herbal mixtures or cow-dung. Every woman in Nepal who risks an abortion not only risks imprisonment, but also sterility, chronic disability and death as a result of the unsupervised and unhygienic conditions in which the abortion takes place. Dr. Aruna Uprety, a physician and leading activist for reproductive rights in Nepal, has seen numerous women die from the complications of unsafe illegal abortion, and she openly acknowledges that she has performed abortions. "After seeing so many women die from ruptured organs, from septicemia or from massive hemorrhage, I realized that the criminalization of abortion was killing women every day." Abortion-related complications are largely responsible for Nepal's maternal mortality rate - 1500 per hundred thousand according to 1996 UNICEF estimates, the highest by far of all South Asian countries. Nepal is one of the few countries in the world where the life expectancy of a woman is less than that of a man.

As in many countries, in Nepal anti-abortion laws primarily affect economically disadvantaged women, who are virtually the only targets of criminal prosecution and who are most vulnerable to the health risks of abortions in non-medical settings. In contrast, for those women with access to financial means, safe clandestine abortions, for fees inflated by the illegality of the procedure, are readily available from doctors in private city clinics. Neither these women nor these doctors are prosecuted, although it is reportedly common knowledge that abortions take place in these clinics.

Legislative efforts to amend the law on abortion have been ongoing since 1994. The currently proposed amendment would legalize abortion for married women in the first trimester of pregnancy, with the consent of the husband. Where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, abortion would be permissible for all women in the first and second trimesters. At any time during the pregnancy, with the recommendation of an authorized medical practitioner, abortion would be permissible if the life of the mother were at risk, if her physical or mental health were at risk, or if the fetus was deformed. Parliamentary consideration of this amendment has been impeded by several political crises followed by changes in government. On 31 July 1997, Bill No. 11 was introduced, addressing a number of issues relating to women's rights including property inheritance, child marriage, polygamy, rape and the proposed amendment to the abortion law. The bill is pending in the Human Rights Committee of Parliament. Equality Now welcomes and supports the initiative underway in Nepal to provide safe and legal abortion for women. However, the provisions of the proposed law which require the consent of a husband restrict the rights of pregnant women to make their own reproductive choices, and effectively transfer these rights from the state to their husbands. Equality Now is also extremely concerned that the proposed law does not include unmarried women except when the pregnancy results from rape or incest.

The World Health Organization, in a report issued in March, 1998, found evidence that anti-abortion laws are linked to higher rates of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths, estimating that unsafe abortions kill 80,000 women per year around the world. The report also found that "contrary to common belief, the legalization of abortion does not necessarily increase abortion rates," and that Barbados, Canada, Tunisia and Turkey did not see increased abortion rates after changing their laws to permit greater access to abortion.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Chairman of the Law Reform Commission, and to the other government officials named below. Express concern that the anti-abortion laws in Nepal have led to such a high maternal mortality rate and that many deaths might have been averted if safe and legal abortion had been available. Cite the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing, which urged governments in its Platform for Action "to deal with the health impact of unsafe abortion as a major public health concern" and to consider "reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions." Note also the recent WHO finding that anti-abortion laws kill women—they do not necessarily prevent abortions. Express support for efforts to amend the law on abortion, while noting concern over the provision requiring the husband's consent and the exclusion of unmarried women. Urge that the draft amendment be revised to address these concerns and passed into law as quickly as possible, in the interest of saving lives. Letters should be addressed to:

Chairman, Human Rights Committee
Parliament
Singh Darbar
Kathmandu, Nepal

Secretary
Parliament
Singh Darbar
Kathmandu, Nepal

Secretary
Ministry of Law
Babar Mahal
Kathmandu, Nepal

Secretary
Ministry of Women and Social Welfare
Social Welfare Building, Lainchaur
Kathmandu, Nepal