Maureen, a maternal health advocate in Uganda, lost her young cousin under tragic, but entirely preventable circumstances. The young woman learned that she was pregnant when she was a first year in university. Because abortion is highly stigmatized in Uganda and the law is unclear to most of the population, including health care providers, she desperately turned to someone who could terminate the pregnancy clandestinely. During the procedure, her intestines were pierced, and it wasn’t long after that she began to suffer the repercussions. She developed diarrhea and started getting stomachaches.
The whole time she kept quiet, but according to Maureen, “when she realized it was getting intense that’s when she told and was admitted [at a health facility].” Even then, in order to avoid being stigmatized, she told the health workers that she had malaria. When the malaria treatment failed to work, she finally disclosed that she’d had an unsafe abortion. “By that time, it was too late. She was referred to a referral hospital, but they said, ‘We can’t handle this,’ and she was brought to the national [hospital] here in Mulago.” There, she had two surgeries, but they were not enough to save her life.
Every year, thousands of Ugandan women like Maureen’s cousin are in danger of being injured or killed as a result of an unsafe abortion. Not only is this state of affairs unacceptable and completely preventable, it is a direct result of the Ugandan government’s systematic failure to fulfill its most basic human rights obligations to its own citizens.
In the Center’s new report The Stakes are High: The Tragic Impact of Unsafe Abortion and Inadequate Access to Contraception in Uganda, scheduled to be released this fall, the organization documents the high human cost of the government’s violations of the rights of women and girls. Published in collaboration with Georgetown law school’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic and O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, the report gives voice to the women of Uganda through the personal stories of how the government’s failure to guarantee their reproductive rights has affected their lives.
The courts in Uganda have interpreted the country’s abortion law extremely narrowly, creating stringent limitations on access to abortion, but the government multiplies the harm by severely restricting access to information. The predictable result is widespread lack of knowledge about the legal framework on abortion in Uganda among the country’s health care providers, law enforcement, the judiciary, regulators, and women themselves. Making matters worse, the Ugandan government has failed entirely to provide adequate access to contraception by allowing persistently high costs and creating an environment in which contraception providers too-frequently run out of inventory. Furthermore, by not taking a leadership role in providing accurate contraceptive information and services, the government has allowed widespread myths and misconceptions to thrive. The results, unfortunately, are low rates of contraception usage, high rates of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, and legions of women and girls driven by desperation and lack of information to seek unsafe abortions that put not only their health, and the health of their communities, in danger but frequently cost them their lives.
The Stakes are High calls on the government of Uganda to make good on its commitment to improve the lives of Ugandan women and girls by implementing systematic changes that improve access to contraception and safe abortion in the country.