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Challenging the abortion law in Nepal. (Law).

A decade ago, the restoration of multi-party democracy transformed the abortion debate from a moral argument into a discussion of human fights. This transformation was critical to building support to reform the existing law, as the devastating effects of illegal abortions became more widely known.

In 1997, the Government registered the Country Code (Eleventh Amendment) Bill 1997, which legalised abortion in the broader context of reforming a series of laws that discriminate against women. However, the abortion provisions required a husband's consent and excluded unmarried women and widows. Human rights activists lobbied to amend these provisions and add new provisions criminalizing sex-selective abortions and abortions performed without a woman's consent. After a lengthy debate, the House of Representatives voted a second time to pass the Bill unopposed on March 14, 2002. It now awaits the King's Royal Seal for it to become law.

Human rights groups and NGOs in Nepal collaborated in a comprehensive effort to lobby the Government to pass the Bill, and sponsored events to rally public support. For example, hearings featuring victims describing how Nepal's discriminatory laws had adversely affected their lives were an eye-opener for the 1500 participants from all 75 districts who attended a national event on 12 February, 2002 in Kamaladi, Kathmandu.

The New Abortion Law

The new law permits abortions up to 12 weeks of a pregnancy with the woman's consent. In cases of rape or incest, the permission is extended to 18 weeks. The law also allows women to abort with medical consent at any time if the pregnancy endangers their life or physical or mental health, or if the unborn child is disabled. To prevent sex-selective abortions, the new law stipulates a three to six months' prison sentence if a person procures a prenatal sex identification test and an additional year in prison if a person performs, or causes to be performed, a sex-selective abortion.

How the CEDAW Convention was Used

Pro-abortion groups relied on international instruments such as the CEDAW Convention and the Cairo and Beijing Declarations to press for abortion legalisation. The human rights framework enumerated women's right to equality, self-determination, living with dignity, privacy and control over their body and sexuality, which formed the backbone of the arguments for legalisation.

When the Government presented its initial report under the CEDAW Convention to the CEDAW Committee in June 1999 in New York, at the review session, civil societies argued that the complete legal ban on abortion jeopardises women's health and contributes to the country's high maternal mortality rate, thus denying them of their fights to health and to deciding on their own body. They also protested that the proposed law did not adequately serve women's rights as declared by the CEDAW Convention. In its Concluding Comments, the CEDAW Committee urged the government to give priority to amending all discriminatory criminal laws, including the abortion law--with the specific recommendation to revise the existing law and to reconsider the proposed amendment so as to provide services for safe abortion.

The major arguments for abortion legalisation were that: 1) illegal abortions led to many women being imprisoned and many others suffering from serious medical complications; 2) the rights of unborn children were being placed over the rights of women who were already members of society, and as such had certain rights too; 3) women deserved the right to decide what to do with their pregnancy, especially if it was unwanted or unplanned--it was a legal paradox that the law forbade women from transferring their citizenship to their children but required them to give birth to the children; and 4) abortion most harshly affected rural women deprived of access to health care and family planning resources.

The Road Ahead

Legalisation is only the first step in recognising a woman's right to choose and in protecting her reproductive and sexual health. Women must be informed of their rights under the new abortion law and of their rights against abortion service providers who use unsafe methods that could lead to life-threatening complications. Moreover, the Government must develop regulations on standards of care to ensure that abortion service providers perform professional, humane and safe abortions. Finally, the women who are in prison for having abortions under the old law must be freed. Otherwise, it will only continue the social injustice that the new law intended to abolish.

* For further information, please contact Sapana Pradhan-Malla, an advocate with the Forum for Women, Law and Development, P.O. Box 2923, Kathmandu, Nepal. Tel: (9771) 266415; Fax: (9771) 240627; E-mail: <fwld@andolan.wlink.com.np>.
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Article Details
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Author:Pradhan-Malla, Sapana
Publication:Arrows For Change
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:756
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