Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Teenage pregnancy, unwanted babies and abortion in Burkina Faso

There’s a rise in teenage pregnancies in Burkina Faso, says IRIN, where as many as 500 unmarried teenage girls per year are becoming pregnant and often feel compelled to abandon their newborn babies.

The story paints a picture of niave girls moving with their families from the countryside to the big city, where sex norms are much more fluid. Shelters for pregnant single girls are full; and orphanages now overflow with abandoned babies.

The abortion issue
However, this information appears to be somewhat inconsistent with a 2003 study that estimated nearly 8,000 women undergo a clandestine abortion each year in Ouagadougou alone. The study, conducted by Demographic Research and Study Unit, or UERD, found that most of these women go to private clinics that perform abortion services after hours; others go to traditional healers and some purchase legal, yet dangerous drugs off the streets from unlicensed street venders.

I remember talking to these researchers a few years back, and Georges Guiella from UERD said that women with money can bribe their way into a clinic for an after-hours procedure. It is often common for a group of high school girls to gather up money to pay for a friend’s procedure, which cost (at least in 2004) between $50 and $100. For those who don’t have access to that kind of money, they often go to traditional healers who can make a concoction from leaves and tree bark that will kill the fertilized egg. For those who do not want to go this route, they can always purchase something off the street or a heavy dose of the anti-malarial medicine Nivaquine.

What is most worrisome to researchers and health workers is that teenage girls – most often between the ages of 15 and 19 – appear to make up the largest group of those looking for an abortion. These young girls are also the most likely to use the most dangerous methods to have the abortion.

The UERD study estimated that nearly 60 percent of women undergoing Ouagadougou’s clandestine abortions end up needed some form of medical care. Twenty years ago, the government set up a program to treat women needing healthcare from complications resulting from clandestine abortions. The problem, researchers and medical workers say, lies with women who relied on traditional healers and unlicensed vendors for their procedure. Dr. Blandine Thiéba from the country’s main hospital told me that these methods can often lead to infection, internal bleeding and other health complications. If left untreated, serious cases could lead to sterility, and as UERD found, sometimes death. (The UERD study estimated 28 deaths per year from clandestine abortions, which I found to be a little low.)

A worldwide phenomenon
In a report by the Alan Guttmacher Foundation, 210 million women throughout the world discover they are pregnant. Around 15 of every 100 of those women have a miscarriage. And, 22 percent of the world’s pregnant women terminate their pregnancy by a form of abortion. That adds up to 46 million women worldwide having an abortion each year, and nearly half of these procedures take place in countries where it is restricted or illegal. In Africa, more than 5 million women each year have an abortion, where it is oftentimes restricted throughout the continent. However, Africa is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s illegal abortions. Burkina Faso allows abortion for instances of rape and to protect the mother’s physical health.

The reasons for wanting abortion are universal: health issues of the child or the mother; economic concerns or any number of conflicts with the father. Also, for young unmarried teenagers everywhere, becoming pregnant bears a huge social burden.

In Africa, nearly 8 out of 10 sexually active women do not use a method of birth control. According to the Government of Burkina Faso, 22 percent of never-married Burkinabé women between the ages of 15 to 44 are sexually active. Of these women, 63 percent do not use contraception. For married women the same age, nearly 20 percent of those who “do not want a child soon” do not use contraception. All this adds up for the government of Burkina Faso to believe that almost one-quarter of all births are unplanned.

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