A new law easing the blanket prohibition on abortion in Nepal was finally passed by the Lower House of Parliament in Nepal and came into force on 26 September 2002, after the Country Code (11th Amendment) Bill was given royal assent. This new legislation is a success resulting from many years of campaigning by women's rights activists in Nepal with support from around the world.
In June 1996 Equality Now issued a Women's Action highlighting the criminalization of abortion in Nepal and the severe effects this had both on the maternal mortality rate in the country and on the women who were imprisoned for having an abortion, irrespective of the circumstances. In Nepal, any act of abortion was punishable by imprisonment with no exception, even in cases where the health or life of the mother was threatened or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Equality Now's Women's Action highlighted the case of Lok Maya Adhikari, a widow with five children, who was serving one year in prison for having had an abortion. In May 1998, Equality Now issued an Update highlighting the case of Bimla, a young mother of two who died as a result of a botched illegal abortion.
Legislative efforts to amend the law on abortion in Nepal had been ongoing since 1994, but parliamentary consideration of any amendment was impeded by several political crises followed by changes in government. On 31 July 1997, the Country Code (11th Amendment) Bill was introduced into Parliament, which addressed a number of issues relating to women's rights including property inheritance, child marriage, polygamy and rape. It also proposed an amendment to the abortion law that would allow women to procure an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, up to the 18th week if the pregnancy is due to rape or incest, and at any time with the advice of a medical practitioner if the pregnancy poses a danger to the life of the woman or to her physical or mental health or would result in the birth of a disabled child. That amendment has now been passed.
It is estimated that twelve women die every day in Nepal as a result of pregnancy and that half of these deaths result from unsafe, illegal abortion-related complications. According to a 1996 UNICEF estimate, abortion-related complications are largely responsible for Nepal having the highest rate of maternal mortality of all South Asian countries--1,500 per 100,000. With the passage of the new law, it is hoped this dire situation will be much improved. Although the law does not apply retroactively, Nepal's then Minister of Health did commit in March 2002 to take action to secure the release of those women already imprisoned for abortion who would have fallen under the exemption provisions of the new Act had it been in existence earlier. To date, however, no woman has been released.
Much more needs to be done to help Nepali women fight continuing discriminatory laws, including limitations in the Country Code (11th Amendment) Act, and Equality Now will continue to work with women's groups in Nepal for the advancement of equality. In the meantime, we hope Women's Action Network members will take the action recommended below to encourage the release from jail of women previously imprisoned for abortion.
We would like to pass on to members of the Women's Action Network the following message from Sapana Pradhan-Malla, President of the Forum for Women, Law and Development in Nepal, which was at the forefront of the campaign to get the Country Code (11th Amendment) Bill passed: "We would like to give our hearty thanks for all the untiring support given all through this process and we are sure that we will work together in future to make a difference in the lives of women." Equality Now adds its thanks to all those who took action on this campaign.
Please write to the officials listed below, congratulating them on the passage of the Country Code (11th Amendment) Act, and asking that they use their good offices to effect the release from jail of all women who have been imprisoned for abortion. Ask also that provision be made in the country for better access to healthcare, including education on reproductive health. Letters should be addressed to:
His Majesty The King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev
Royal Palace Secretariat
Narayanhity Royal Palace
Telephone: +977-1-227576, 227577
The Right Honorable Lokendra Bahadur Chand
Office of the Prime Minister
Telephone: +977-1-228555, 227955