Backstreet Abortions Plague Cameroon
“I didn’t see anything, but felt a pulling sensation,” she says. “The pain was unbearable, but I subdued my screams. I did not allow myself to convey my pain.”
She says she feels guilty about aborting her baby but that she had no choice.
“I was very guilty about it, but the idea of being thrown out of school and the disgrace I would bring to myself and family persuaded me I had made the right decision,” she says. “I was able to go back to school after the abortion, but I still feel guilty.”
For young Cameroonian girls throughout the country, illegitimate pregnancies mean social and economic devastation. For older women, often they have many children, and they can’t afford to take care of another baby.
Abortion in Cameroon is only legal in cases of rape and in which the pregnancy would create grave risks to the mother’s health. Pressured by various socio-economic factors, many girls and women turn to backstreet clinics where unlicensed “doctors” perform illegal abortions, which lead to health complications and even fatalities. While some nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, and civil society organizations, CSOs, recommend expanding the legality of abortion, others and the government promote sexual and reproductive health information and services to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Statistics on backstreet abortions are unavailable because identities are concealed as much as possible and no records or files are kept because the process is illegal.
Cameroon is off track to reduce child mortality by two-thirds and reduce maternal deaths by three-quarters – goals four and five of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. initiative agreed to by countries worldwide to complete between 1990 and 2015.
The fertility rate has declined from 6.2 children per woman in 1970 to 4.5 children in 2009, according to UNICEF’s most recent statistics from 2009. Still, less than 30 percent of women ages 15 to 49 use contraception.
Sections 337 to 339 of the Cameroon Penal Code make abortions illegal, except if proven necessary to save the mother from grave danger to her health or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. The law further stipulates that a qualified medical practitioner must perform the abortion in these instances, and the public prosecutor’s office must confirm all rape cases.
Anyone who performs an illegal abortion is subject to one to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 to 2 million Central African CFA francs, $220 USD to $4,380 USD. Penalties are doubled for medical professionals who perform illegal abortions, and they may be prohibited from continuing to practice medicine. A woman who procures or consents to her own abortion is subject to imprisonment for 15 days to one year and/or a fine of 5,000 to 200,000 Central African CFA francs, $11 USD to $440 USD.
Despite the risk of these penalties, women turn to backstreet clinics for illegal abortions if they don’t meet the narrow criteria to obtain a legal abortion, says Dr. Okwen Patrick, a medical doctor at Bali District Hospital in northwestern Cameroon.
“At the backstreet clinics, women get an abortion within a very short time and at three times less the cost of what it would cost them in the recognized clinics,” he says. “In clinics, abortion procedures usually cost about $60 USD, but in backstreet clinics it costs $20 USD.”