In maybe the most heartbreaking news story you’ll hear this week, a 10-year-old in Senegal who was raped and is now pregnant with twins cannot access abortion care because it is illegal in Senegal. Given its feminist prime minister, relative stability (it’s one of the few African countries that has never had a coup), and the presence of NGOs like Tostan, whose community empowerment programs provide public education on poor health outcomes associated with female genital cutting (FGC) and forced marriage, it may come as a surprise that Senegal has one of the most restrictive laws on abortion among African countries.
But while all of these things are true of Senegal, it is also a former French colony, and its anti-abortion law was written under colonial rule. And this archaic law only allows for abortion in life or death cases, and requires approval from three physicians. For women living in poverty, accessing initial medical care in the hopes of obtaining an abortion is already cost-prohibitive. And doctors who perform illegal abortions and women who obtain them face years of jail time.
What this means for the 10-year-old girl in this case is this: “She is going to have to go through with the pregnancy,” Fatou Kiné Camara, president of the Senegalese women lawyers’ association, told the Guardian.The best we can do is keep up pressure on the authorities to ensure the girl gets regular scans and free medical care.”
Maternal mortality is already a leading cause of death around the world for teenage girls. And if it’s a life-threatening process for someone with a fully-developed pelvis, what will that mean for a 10-year-old?
There is movement now in Senegal to change abortion laws to align with the African Charter on Women’s Rights, which includes legal medical abortion in some cases, including rape, which would apply here. But progress is slow-going. Unless the girl’s condition becomes life-threatening, abortion is not an option. This is what happens when women are required to jump through hoops to access care. And while Senegal’s political situation is very different from ours, what’s so shocking about this case isn’t that it couldn’t happen in the US. It’s that similar cases already have.