International Campaign for Women's Right to Safe Abortion
09 December 2015

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STOP PRESS: Sierra Leone has a new abortion law!

by Charlotte Watts, Ipas

8 December 2015

It is my great pleasure to let you know that the latest abortion law reform in the world has just passed through parliament in Sierra Leone a few hours ago with NO votes opposed!

The Honorable Isata Kabia brought forward a private member's bill last week in Parliament. She cited the 2014 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee review, in which the Committee noted with concern the country's high maternal mortality and the highly restrictive abortion law. The CEDAW review also noted that the law ignored the high incidence of sexual violence and unwanted pregnancy that often result in unsafe abortions - which account for 30% of Sierra Leone's maternal mortality.

"Mr. Speaker, Honorable Members, these are women in the prime of their lives who most likely have other children and families to take care of. Yet unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal mortality that can be most easily addressed, through improved access to family planning, information and services, safe, legal abortion services and high-quality post-abortion care," said Kabia before the final vote.

This bill, which makes abortion legal on request of the woman, had strong support from key parliamentarians and government leaders. The government has pledged in several global and regional human rights forums that they would pass the bill. Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, including a significant contribution from unsafe abortion.

An estimated 400 women showed up in support of the bill wearing "Children by choice, not by chance" T-shirts (thanks to Marie Stopes Sierra Leone) and clapping at positive statements from the floor.

The First Lady has called the Ipas Country Director and will be seeing her this afternoon. We hope the bill will make it to the President's desk very soon for his signature.

Our policy staff in Freetown were giddy with excitement: we hope you're feeling the same way at this exciting news!!

Sierra Leone has signed or ratified almost all international and national treaties and optional protocols that are designed to protect human rights, including the AU Women's Protocol , which specifically calls for countries to protect women's health and rights by increasing access to safe abortion.

"Practically everyone in Sierra Leone knows someone who has been affected in some way by unsafe abortion-people have lost wives, daughters, and loves ones. This bill has the power to change things for the better," said Val Tucker, former Ipas Country Manager in Sierra Leone.

"It has been a long road; we've been working on law reform efforts here for the last five years," says Tucker. Ipas has been engaged with partners over the last five years to lead advocacy efforts and gather evidence to tap into the community's overwhelming support for law reform.

In 2010, a Law Reform commission reviewed the existing law and recommended law reform. Also, before the last Presidential election, there was an attempt to reform the bill which progressed but never made it to a vote, notes Tucker.

In 2011, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation partnered with Ipas to conduct three studies examining unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion, revealing that unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion were identified in all regions as a significant problem. The studies - which included assessments of the burden and cost of unsafe abortion - found that the Sierra Leone government spent between US $112,000 and $230,000 each year on personnel and medical supplies to treat post-abortion cases. If the government provided safe abortion, by contrast, the government could save US$121,000.

In 2012, a number of government leaders and stakeholders visited Ethiopia to study that country's successful law reform and safe abortion implementation process. The Ethiopian government officials, health-care providers and civil-society leaders stressed the significant benefits of abortion law reform for women's health and lives, as well as for the health care system. In voicing their strong commitment to providing safe abortion, doctors, nurses and midwives in particular attested to the positive changes they had seen in Ethiopia after revision of the law. As one doctor noted, "We don't see the tragedy of severe abortion complication and death any more in this hospital, it has become something of the past."

This time the legwork and efforts of so many advocates paid off, says Tucker. There was strong support from high-level government officials, including the Minister of Social Welfare and Minister of Justice. "And during the vote there were hundreds of women there, wearing t-shirts that read 'Children by choice, not by force' and cheering during positive statements," she adds.

"This news makes Sierra Leone a real leader in the growing trend of progressive abortion law reform in Africa," says Charlotte Hord Smith, Ipas Policy Director. "With Mozambique's law reform of last year and efforts in other countries to review their restrictive laws, we are seeing great progress toward respecting women's reproductive rights and protecting their health in the region."