Lok Maya Adhikari is a thirty-eight-year-old farmer in Bhadrapur, Nepal who has been in detention since June 1995, and is now serving a one-year sentence on the charge of having had an abortion. Married at the age of 15 and widowed at 32, Lok Maya was left with five children, the youngest of whom is six years old. Her children, two sons and three daughters, have been sent to live with an uncle while their mother serves her prison term. According to her statement in Jhapa District Court on 2 July 1995, Lok Maya became pregnant by a friend of the family. When she told him of her pregnancy, he advised her to get an abortion and took her to a traditional birth attendant who gave her an herbal root intended to stimulate uterine contractions. Lok Maya inserted the root in her vagina, which after some pain induced abortion. Two days later, on 27 June 1995, Lok Maya was arrested. She was unable to post bail and was held in detention. On 31 March 1996, she was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. She is scheduled to be released on 27 June 1996. In December, the alleged father of the pregnancy, Bhim Prashad Poudel, was also arrested. In a statement made to the court on 6 December 1995, he denied responsibility for both the pregnancy and the abortion. He was found not guilty and released.
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 on women, 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. Thousands more every year 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. Abortion-related complications are largely responsible for Nepal's maternal mortality rate, 850 per hundred thousand according to 1995 government estimates, the highest of all South Asian countries. Recent surveys indicate that more than half of the maternal deaths in the five major Kathmandu hospitals resulted from abortion-related complications. 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, Nepal's 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.
A draft resolution to amend the law on abortion was introduced in the sixth session of Parliament on 20 March 1994 as Bill 2050. The proposed amendment would legalize abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, with the consent of the husband, or in the case of an unmarried woman with parental consent. Where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, abortion would be permissible in the first and second trimesters, with no spousal or parental consent required in the first trimester. 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 were deformed.
On 11 July 1995, the Parliament was dissolved as a result of a political crisis before legislative action was taken on Bill 2050. A new government was constituted on 11 September 1995. The bill is currently pending with the Foreign and Human Rights Committee of Parliament. The forthcoming session of Parliament is scheduled to begin on 26 June 1996, but the bill will not be considered unless it is raised by the Committee. 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 or parent restrict the rights of pregnant women to make their own reproductive choices, and effectively transfer these rights from the state to their husbands and parents.
Please write to the Chairman of the Foreign and Human Rights Committee, 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 last year 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." Cite the case of Lok Maya Adhikari and question whether it is wise and whether it is just to treat a person under such circumstances, a widowed mother of five, as a criminal offender under the law, subject to imprisonment. Welcome the recent initiative to amend the law on abortion and provide access for women to safe and legal abortion, but express concern over the provisions requiring the husband or parent's consent. Urge that such provisions be deleted from the draft amendment, and that the amendment be passed into law as quickly as possible, in the interest of saving lives. Letters should be addressed to:
Hon. Jaya Prakash Anand
Foreign and Human Rights Committee of the Parliament
Singh Darbar, Kathmandu, Nepal
Mr. Surya Kiran Gurung
Mr. Suresh Man Shresth
Ministry of Law
Ms. Prabha Basnet
Ministry of Women and Social Welfare
Social Welfare Building