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Tackling the challenges of unsafe abortions in Burkina Faso

Only 3% of abortions are carried out by properly qualified doctors
Only 3% of abortions are carried out by properly qualified doctors

Abortions remain illegal under almost all circumstances in Burkina Faso, but many women still take the risk to end unwanted pregnancies.

A recent study by the University of Ouagadougou and the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health think tank, finds that over 100,000 abortions were carried out in Burkina Faso in 2012. Abortion here is legal only under very strict conditions, such as in cases of rape or when there is a risk to the child, and the tests to determine eligibility are tough. Despite this, the abortion rate is 22 per 1,000 women with the majority being carried out in unsafe conditions.

According to the report only 3% of abortions in 2012 were done by doctors who were trained to conduct them. This has worrying implications for the women involved, since unsafe abortions carry a greatly increased risk of complications. It was found that around 40% of women take matters into their own hands and ingest chemicals, such as bleach or high doses of drugs, putting their lives in danger. This paints a worrying picture of the reality of abortion in Burkina Faso, which extends well beyond what has been legally sanctioned.

The most at risk

As is often the case, poor women in rural areas are the most at risk, with the report suggesting that 97% of rural abortions use unsafe methods. According to Georges Guiella, a researcher at University of Ouagadougou, teenagers are most likely to have these secret procedures. Talking to Irin news, he says the main problem is that teenagers have very the limited access to family planning. These services could have prevented pregnancy in the first place, making abortions unnecessary.

Djénéba Sanou, director general of health services in Burkina Faso, agrees, saying that the cost of contraception remains an obstacle for many despite large subsidies. According to Guiella this is compounded by the often reproachful attitudes towards teenagers from those providing contraceptive advice and services. Angele Sourable, the programme director at Burkina Faso Association for Family Welfare, tells Irin that changing these attitudes will be key to preventing deaths due to unsafe abortions.

Next steps

Though the government has no plans to the change the laws on abortion, it has been taking steps to improve sexual health advice and access to contraception. In 2009, restrictions on providing family planning assistance to girls and teenagers were abolished, and now health education has been introduced in schools. Just as importantly, they have created health training centres that focus on post abortion care to try and change attitudes and reduce stigma.

However, 20% of women in Burkina Faso still have no access to contraceptives that could have prevented 37,000 unsafe abortions and 400 maternal deaths. Many NGOs also argue that even when abortions would be legal, such as in cases of rape and incest, social stigma and administrative barriers still push women to use unsafe methods. The challenges to women's reproductive health in Burkina Faso are societal, economic and legal. Overcoming them will not be easy, but doing so will help hundreds of thousands of women and girls now and in the future.

Burkina Faso is one of Africa's least developed countries. We provide a loving home for children in two key locations, including Ouagadougou, the capital. Find out how we are doing to help the most vulnerable children in Burkina Faso.

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