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Democratic Republic of Congo: Clandestine Abortions on the Rise in Goma

[Testimonies for this post were collected by email or face-to-face interviews in French and all links forward to French articles] 

Illegal abortion is a common practice in several provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly in Goma, Nord-Kivu, where the number of deaths recorded as caused by these back-door procedures is increasing day by day at a worrisome rate. Several foetuses have been found in recent weeks in parts of Goma, located in the east of the D.R.C., alarming many in the community.

Local administrator Mapendo Victorine said in an email she is very concerned about this “criminal” act:

Il y a une semaine dans le quartier Mikeno à Birere un de plus grands quartiers de la ville de Goma un fœtus de 5 mois a été retrouvé emballé dans un sachet dans une poubelle publique.  La mère ou jeune fille responsable de cet acte est  inconnue.

A week ago, a 5-month-old foetus was found in a public bin in one of the largest neighbourhoods in Goma, wrapped up in a plastic bag. The mother is unknown.

Congolese law prohibits abortion in all parts of the country, and as such severe punishments are sanctioned to all those involved in the elicitation of illegal abortions. Lawyer Alain Lushule, a member of the bar in Goma, explained to us that Articles 165 and 166 of the Congolese Penal Code (Book II) mandate a punishment of 5 to 10 years’ imprisonment for having an abortion, and 5 to 15 years for participation in the act.

Health Centre in Goma, D.R.C., by Julien Harneis

Health Centre in Goma, D.R.C., by Julien Harneis on Flickr CC-license-BY)

Photojournalist Alain Wandiwoji expressed his concerns on his blog over the distressing situation in Goma:

Depuis décembre dernier, 11 fœtus ont été ramassés dans des caniveaux, et trois bébés étranglés retrouvés dans des poubelles publiques de certains quartiers de Goma : “Trop c'est trop ! Laisse entendre un pasteur de la ville de Goma.

Since December 2011, 11 foetuses have been found in gutters and 3 strangled babies have been found in public bins. A pastor from Goma suggests: “Enough is enough!”

A mother, indignant after seeing the foetus, told us in a face-to-face interview:

La personne qui a commis cet acte doit être recherchée par la police et être punit sévèrement pour ce meurtre. Des enfants ont été les premiers à découvrir cet enfant alors qu’ils pensaient trouver un ballon. Entendant cette foule nombreuse du quartier autour de ce fœtus, il y a une forte tristesse mais personne ne veut comprendre et s’interroger sur le pourquoi de ces pratiques d’avortement qui prennent de plus en plus de l’ampleur. Tout le monde condamne cet acte.

The person who committed this murder should be sought by the police and severely punished. A group of children came across the bag, thinking it was a balloon. The discovery of this foetus has caused a great deal of sadness, but no one is trying to understand by asking themselves why these abortion practices are gaining more and more momentum. They are condemned by everyone.

Fortuna Lufungula, a human rights activist in Goma, in an email touched on the cultural and moral reasons behind many in the community's denunciation of abortion:

Les traditions africaines et congolaises sont fondées sur des principes selon lesquelles avorter est un meurtre. Nul n’est censé tué et personne n’est autorisé de mettre fin à une vie d’un fœtus même quand celui-ci est d’un jour. Si on l’élimine, c’est un meurtre et il doit être sanctionné.

African and Congolese traditions are based on the principal that abortion is murder. Nobody should be killed, and nobody should be able to terminate the life of a foetus, even if it is only a day old. Termination is murder, and as such should be punished.

Can it be said that abortion is a crime without identifying the causes, issues and consequences of an act that is carried out by many young women and even some married women in Goma? What are the main reasons that lead these women to have abortions?

Challenges of women in Goma by Passy Mubalama for Uhaki News

Challenges of women in Goma by Passy Mubalama for Uhaki News

Parents’ inflexibility

Many parents in Goma still find it difficult to accept their daughters falling pregnant, even if they are not minors. When parents discover that their daughter is pregnant, she is many times immediately removed from the family home and taken to the man responsible for the pregnancy, forced into starting her own family.

Mwamini Bujiriri, the mother of a family from Goma, drove her 14-year-old daughter from their family home after discovering she was pregnant by a young man from the same village. Bujiriri explained in an interview:

Je ne peux pas rester avec ma fille lorsqu’elle est enceinte car elle m’a ridiculisé elle doit aller rejoindre son mari responsable de sa grossesse. Nous ne pouvons pas rester deux femmes dans la même maison c’est impossible.

I cannot let my daughter stay knowing she is pregnant because she has made a fool out of me. She is now the responsibility of the man who made her pregnant. It is impossible for two women to live in the same house.

Many parents do not want to hear the word “abortion” because, according to many of them, abortion is murder.

A woman in Goma by @RachelBayoli

A woman in Goma by @RachelBayoli

The irresponsibility of young men

Irresponsibility of the young men involved, often alongside religious beliefs, force many young women into underground abortions and even infanticide.

A young girl, who does not want to be identified, gave us her account:

Lorsque je suis tombée enceinte, je n’ai pas eu le courage d’en parler à mes parents car ils devraient seulement me chasser de la maison et ou me tuer. J’ai décidé de me taire. En même temps, le garçon responsable de ma grossesse ne voulait pas croire que c'était lui le vrai responsable. Je me suis alors retrouvé entre deux mondes car je ne pouvais rien dire à mes parents et en même temps je n’avais nulle part où aller. C’est ainsi que j’ai décidé d’avorter, mais en même temps aussi je ne pouvais pas aller à l’hôpital car l’avortement n’est pas autorisé dans notre pays et donc les médecins ne pouvaient pas accepter de le faire. Je suis donc partie voir un médecin qui a fait la procédure dans la clandestinité loin de mon quartier.

When I got pregnant, I was too scared to tell my parents because they would have thrown me out of the house or killed me. I decided to keep quiet. At the same time, the boy involved didn't believe that he was the father. I was stuck because I couldn't say anything to my parents but I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I decided to have an abortion. I couldn't go to the hospital because abortion is illegal in our country and so doctors can't agree to do it. I had to go to a doctor far away from my neighbourhood who did the procedure illegally.

There are a lot of other young girls who, like her, are forced into illegal abortions that are carried out in secret and bring with them many associated risks, including death.

Many cases are recorded by the CONDE medical clinic in the Karisimbi neighborhood in Goma. A doctor from the clinic, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us:

Au mois de Mars dernier, une jeune fille d’une vingtaine d’année est morte de suite d’un avortement qu’elle a provoqué elle est arrivé à l’hôpital dans un très mauvais état elle a provoqué la grossesse. On a tous fait pour l’aider mais elle a fini par mourir. Beaucoup des jeunes filles meurent simplement parce qu’elles ont tenté d’avorter clandestinement.

In March, a 20-year-old girl died after having an abortion. She arrived at the hospital in a very bad state. We did all we could, but she passed away. A lot of girls die from trying to perform abortions illegally.

Beliefs and abortion

Many girls who are raped, sometimes by armed men, do not have abortions for fear of committing a sin against God. These girls suffer in silence, both with their unwanted pregnancies and the difficulty of upholding their religious beliefs.

A victim of sexual violence told us about her ordeal in the Lydia Centre, where she is receiving support. The centre, which oversees victims of sexual violence, was created by the ASLPC, Action Sociale pour la Promotion des Laissés pour Compte (social action association to help those left behind)  in Goma. She explains:

Quand j’ai été violée, c’était insupportable à vivre et très douloureux pour moi.  Malheureusement quelques mois après je me suis retrouvé enceinte. Je n'ai pas su quoi faire, je ne voulais même pas car c’est un péché. Mais comme je ne peux pas avorter, je garde quand même mon bébé. Même si quand je le vois je me rappelle de beaucoup des choses douloureuses.

When I was raped, I found life unbearable and it was very painful for me. Unfortunately, I found out I was pregnant a few months later. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want the baby because it was a sin. But having an abortion was also a sin, so I kept the baby. The painful memories come back every time I see him.

The situation according to medical specialists 

A gynaecologist from the Provincial Hospital of Goma gave his point of view:

La jeune fille devrait pouvoir avoir le droit, dans le cas où elle se sent pas prête moralement et physiquement d’avoir un enfant de choisir d'avorter.

The girl should have had the right to choose abortion, given that she was physically and mentally unready to have a child.

Given the degree of the situation, it seems that the Congolese government should consider an alternative to the current law, the gynecologist explained:

 Les victimes sont encore trop souvent sujets  à recourir aux avortements dans la clandestinité qui comporte  beaucoup des risques. Que le gouvernement autorise officiellement l’avortement afin que tous ces actes cessent  et que si on veut avorter,  qu’on le fasse sans aucune crainte dans des hôpitaux qui peuvent assurer une bonne prise en charge médicale. Il faut aussi  renforcer la sensibilisation des femmes et des jeunes filles sur l’utilisation des méthodes contraceptives, afin d’éviter les grossesses indésirables.

The victims still have to resort to extremely risky illegal abortions too often. The government should officially authorise abortion so that this stops. If a girl wants an abortion, it should be done with good medical care and without fear in a hospital. Awareness should also be raised about contraceptive methods to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

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