In June 2020, just when the lockdown regulations were wearing off in most parts of the country, Sandra* discovered she was pregnant. The 21-year-old remembered feeling shocked as she had taken a post-pill the day after she had sex with her ex-partner. She also understood, being in her early twenties, still in school and living with her single mother, that she couldn’t keep the pregnancy.
“The day I found out was the day I took it out,” Sandra* tells Zikoko. “ I think the stressful part was finding a place to get it done. My ex suggested someone who was going to give me something to drink but the idea didn’t go down well with me. Then I remembered a friend in my hostel whose friend had gotten an abortion, and she connected me with a doctor in Benin. Luckily for me, the doctor was nice. He actually said his goal is to destigmatise abortion, so he put me through the two types (medical and vacuum) and I opted for the surgical process. The process lasted like 5 minutes. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined and that’s why I’m telling my story. Women need to know that it’s actually an easy process when done right.”
25-year-old Uloma* found out she was pregnant on February 25th, 2019. She had been certain the symptoms she felt were indicative of her period, which was also supposed to start around that time. Uloma*, along with a friend, proceeded to call all the health workers she knew.
“First, I was afraid that abortions in the hospitals were unsafe and wouldn’t be done with the latest medical tools — it isn’t practised here so doctors wouldn’t have evolved. For example, who still does D and C for early pregnancies? Why that? I was also scared that they would call the police on me or ask for spousal consent or something funny. Of course, it would have been easier to find a place if the laws were different, places where reproductive rights are taken seriously and abortion is legal. Wouldn’t be doing James Bond for pills if it was that case,” says Uloma*. She finally settled on taking a pill, which took a lot of research and connections to get.
Lola*, 28, who has had an abortion in London, attests to the importance of safe and legal facilities to carry out the procedure. “I was offered therapy and gained considerable compassion from my university, which supported me academically and financially through the situation. My friend’s situation in Nigeria was far more secretive and expensive. I practically had luxury compared to her. She had to go through the backdoors of a clinic and her university work was interrupted. I’m not sure how well she was able to do in her studies. How emotionally, physically, and financially taxing it was for her was not comparable to my situation,” Lola* tells us.
Legalities of Abortion in Nigeria
Abortion is currently illegal in Nigeria. Sections 228-230 of the Criminal Code, which applies in the southern states of Nigeria, provides that any person involved in the abortion procedure is guilty of a felony. Timinepre Cole, a legal practitioner, and writer who has covered abortion rights in Nigeria explains that persons who carry out the procedure will be imprisoned for 14 years and persons who aid and abet abortion procedures will be imprisoned for three years.
“Women who abort are also guilty of a felony, which is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. Sections 32-234 of the Penal Code
The only instance when abortion is allowed in Nigeria is if having that child puts the life of the mother in danger, thus erasing instances where the woman got pregnant through sexual assault or simply does not have the social and mental capital to rear a child.
A major factor as to why abortion remains illegal despite its overpowering necessity, seeing as unsafe abortions contribute to Nigeria’s high maternal mortality rate, points to the country’s conservative views. “Religion and purity culture for one affects how we view abortion in Nigeria and having an abortion does not conform to the accepted standards of morality and chastity prescribed for women,” Timinepre says.
26-year-old Mink*, a healthcare professional who has been able to access safe abortion methods through the help of her work, also believes that the current laws in place are helping unsafe abortion processes thrive. “They make safe abortions hard to access. Most hospitals in Lagos don’t offer the service.
So women opt to have it done by untrained people under very unhygienic methods. This increases the risk of complications and death. To buy the pills from pharmacies, you have to know who to ask. I’m lucky because I have friends that are pharmacists, so they can get it for me. Most people don’t have that luxury, and I hate it.”
The conservative views trickle down to the health sectors, where women who go to have safe abortions are judged and ridiculed. In Sandra’s case, for example, even though the doctor who attended to her was professional, the nurses were less so. “They gave me judgemental looks and were talking about how I needed forgiveness. Immediately after my surgery, not even up to a minute, a nurse brought the fetus and shoved it in my face saying, “See your baby”. I didn’t answer. Then she said she was going to throw it away. I just did not mind her. It was later that I noticed that, omo, that image did not leave my head.”
Fighting for Abortion Rights in Nigeria.
“It’s been crazy, but I don’t regret any bit of it. It’s a sensitive, money-consuming albeit worthy cause to advocate for, considering the type of country we find ourselves in.” Jekein Lato-Unah, visual artist and women’s rights activist shares with us what it means to fight for abortion rights in Nigeria. “I mostly pay out-of-pocket for these procedures, follow them to the clinics, check on them afterwards especially if the person is a survivor of rape. I don’t profit from assisting women with safe abortion practices done by qualified medical practitioners, yet I’ve had people try to set me up, set the medical professionals up, publish the numbers of doctors that assist the women that come to me, made false accusations against me along the lines of sending women to their deaths & profiting off their predicament.”
For Iwatutu Joyce, programme lead, African Girl Child Development, and Support Initiative, other huge roadblocks to improving abortion rights apart from funding also rest in socio-cultural behaviours, acceptance, and a low level of education on the subject. “The knowledge gap affects the work that I do. Schools in Nigeria do not provide comprehensive information on this very important subject. They only limit it to modified versions and make it hard for young women to know what they need to about abortions in a safe and healthy manner. And because adolescents are not covered under the law when it comes to accessing reproductive healthcare services, they are required to get parental consent.”
But Jekein believes that for a considerable shift to happen, the healthcare sector has to lobby for a change in the current law and to improve education on abortion. “Unfortunately, the problem with this is medical practitioners are also influenced by faux morals, culture, and religion, even though their utmost concern should be the choice and well-being of their patients as well as every other person, and not what their culture or religion permits. I believe the number of medical practitioners that want abortions decriminalized is significantly less than those who are vehemently against it.”
Edited by Ope Adedeji and Ruth Zakari.