Shreejana Bajracharya is a 28 year old reproductive rights activist from Nepal. When she is not attending classes to finish up her Master’s degree in gender studies, Bajracharya works with Asia Safe Abortion Partnership and Marie Stopes International in Nepal to increase women’s access to reproductive services including abortion. On a daily basis, she meets with young people and speaks about sexual and reproductive health and rights including the right to access abortion services.
Bajracharya is bold, articulate and unafraid but she can remember a time when speaking about abortion access in Nepal seemed impossible.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the country legalized abortion and even though many restrictions still remain, Bajracharya says she has experienced the change first hand. The legalization allowed her to speak up about the issue without fear for the first time.
“The best part of legalization of abortion is that it made it possible for us to discuss the issue publicly. It enabled us to have awareness-raising programs at the grassroots level,” Bajracharya says.
Bajracharya now uses her blog and social media platforms to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive rights and change attitudes. However the change goes beyond attitudes. It is saving lives, the activist argues.
“When abortion was illegal in Nepal, women’s lives were at risk. Back then women were prosecuted and sent to prison under charges of infanticide.”
Before 2002, according to Nepali law women could spend up to twenty years in prison for getting abortions. They could also face humiliation and marginalization in their communities that prevented them from seeking proper care after illegal abortions, Bajracharya argues.
“After legalization, the utilization of safe abortion care increased steeply. Many abortion care health facilities were established and a large numbers of health care providers were trained in abortion care,” she says.
It was these changes that helped the country curb maternal mortality. While before 2002, Nepal had one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, access to legal and safe abortions has contributed to a major decline in deaths around the country.
Despite tremendous gain, Nepal has a long way to go before every woman has the right to choose because even though access has increased the laws have plenty of room for improvement. In Nepal, women can get abortions as long as it is within 12 weeks of pregnancy, but abortions after 12 weeks are only permitted in the case of rape, incest or impact on woman’s health.
“These laws exclude a large number of women in Nepal. We must revisit and reform them,” Bajracharya says.
It is not just the domestic law that prevents full access. Many women remain unaware that abortion is legal and available, Bajracharya argues. In addition, the high costs for abortion and lack of aid also contribute to the problem. Even though governmental hospitals are legally required to provide free abortions, that provision is routinely ignored and women end up paying large sums out of their own pockets. The financial burden of paying up to the equivalent of about 10 dollars in governmental hospitals and up to 500 dollars in private hospital makes it hard for poverty-stricken women to seek safe abortions. This often leads them to resorting to cheaper traditional methods which can endanger their lives and health.
United States’ foreign policy is another obstacle. The US could help dozens of women in Nepal and around the world by repealing the Helms Amendment – which prohibits the use of U.S. foreign aid funds to provide abortion “as a method of family planning” – or at least clarifying that it allows for abortions for victims of rape or incest and for women whose lives are threatened by pregnancy.
“This law has prohibited global funding for all abortions even if the pregnancy is due to rape or incest or causes a life-endangering situation. This is a great barrier for women seeking abortion safely and legally. Changing this law will definitely help to improve women’s health and prevent unsafe abortions,” Bajracharya argues, “I really think that this is the time for a change.”