Limited access to contraceptives has put millions of young girls at risk of unsafe abortions in Asia-Pacific countries.
Rishita Nandagiri, a member of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, said that young women and other marginalized groups were still facing barriers in access not only to effective contraception but also safe abortion services.
“Most sexual and reproductive health and rights programs delivered by Asia-Pacific governments ignore safe abortion practices,” she said.
As a result, women rarely have other options than to seek unsafe abortions when dealing with unwanted pregnancies.
Amid legal and cultural barriers to premarital sex among teenagers, many young girls are forced to take risks to avoid humiliation and rejection within their communities.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 98 percent of an estimated 21.6 million unsafe abortions worldwide occur in developing countries, half of which are carried out in Asia.
Almost 5 million women suffer from temporary or permanent disability caused by unsafe abortions. A high number of maternal mortalities in developing countries are associated with unsafe abortions.
Women are often forced to apply unsafe, self-induced abortion methods, such as putting roots, sticks or acid inside their wombs, leading to severe bleeding, infection and even death.
The need for access to safe abortions triggered a heated debate among participants at the 6th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights, held at Gadjah Mada University last week.
The UN-sponsored event highlighted it as a central issue for a high number of adolescents, and as a key concern for the world’s population, which is estimated to surpass 7 billion by the end of this month.
The UN defines adolescents as young people aged between 10 and 24. The number of adolescents in the Asia-Pacific region is around 850 million, accounting for half of the world’s young people.
“Some adolescents may have advantages, such as liberal parents, with whom they can freely discuss their accidental pregnancies. Many others, however, especially those who are impoverished and living in rural areas, are afraid to talk to their parents and don’t have the money or opportunity to seek help,” said Eszter Kismodi, the human rights adviser for the WHO’s reproductive health and research department.
Studies show that the high number of unsafe abortion-associated deaths relates to prevailing restrictive abortion laws in certain countries.
A report on Indonesian field analysis, titled: “Using Human Rights for Maternal and Neonatal Health: (A Tool for Strengthening Laws, Policies, and Standards of Care)”, jointly published by the Health Ministry and the WHO in 2007, recognized that laws have posed as barriers to abortion. Due to the restrictive nature of the law, the number of abortions performed each year in Indonesia is grossly under-reported.
The 2007 report, however, put the figure at around 2 million, comprising both induced and spontaneous abortions. Data from the national household health survey in 2001 showed that complications following unsafe abortions contributed to 5 percent of maternal deaths.
A study cited in the report said that 24 percent of abortions in Indonesia were performed by traditional midwives. The incidence rate ranged from 15 percent in cities to 84 percent in rural areas, showing the need for safe abortion services.
The report also identified that if female students became pregnant, they were likely to be expelled from school.
The 2009 Health Law stipulates that abortion is prohibited with the only exceptions being cases of medical emergency or rape.
An edict released by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in 2005 supported the law.
“Hospitals, doctors or reproductive health clinics can deliver safe abortion services as long as they are conducted [according to the law],” said Sugiri Syarief, the head of the National Family Planning Board (BKKBN), told The Jakarta Post.
He said public and health professionals have yet to increase both their awareness on the importance of safe abortion services as allowed by the law and their understanding on how the law can be properly interpreted.