Abortion or Social Death: Prisoners Rights in Togo

Last week, I visited the civil prison in Lomé, Togo. My job: to seek out and interview pregnant women or women with children (yes, you read that right, women are frequently forced to keep their infant children with them in prison). These interviews will later become part of a campaign that CACIT (Le Collectif des Associations contrel’Impunité au Togo) is running to raise awareness about the rights of prisoners in Togo.

On that day last week, I interviewed one woman in particular, who I will call Claudia (not her real name). Claudia is in her mid-twenties and she is married. She has been in prison for several months and has yet to meet with a lawyer. She has no idea when her case will go to trial, if ever. In fact, she hasn’t even heard her formal charges. Claudia knows why she’s in prison though. She’s in prison for trying to get an abortion.

Claudia is now 6 months pregnant. She hopes she’ll be released before she gives birth, but it’s unlikely. If she’s still in prison in three months, she will not be with her husband during labor. Claudia will not receive extra food or water during pregnancy or when the child is born. She will not have access to a doctor during pregnancy, or go to a hospital during labor.

CACIT has testimony from another woman; let’s call her Elise. Elise was granted the “privilege” of going to the hospital when she went into labor at the Lomé prison. Elise lay on the ground, ignored by doctors and hospital staff. For hours of labor, Elise was kept handcuffed with her hands behind her back. When Elise’s baby was born, she could not hold them or feed them because her hands were kept locked behind her. This is the fate that may await Claudia. If Claudia and her child survive labor, she will most likely be forced raise the child in prison for the first years of their life.

How is this possible, you ask? How can reasonable, thinking, feeling humans truly believe that giving birth and raising a child in prison is truly better than having an abortion? To answer this question, you need a bit of background about Togo.

Togo, the smallest country in West Africa, today has one of the world’s highest levels of unmet need for contraception. Less than 10% of the 6.6 million people in Togo currently have access to and use contraception regularly. As a result, illegal abortion has become increasingly common and increasingly unsafe.

In 1981, Togo repealed the existing French Penal code. This code contained language making all abortions and all forms of contraception illegal. This contraceptive ban included the advertisement, manufacture, transport, sale and importation of contraceptives. These laws were not immediately replaced with Togolese laws about abortion or contraception, and so for a time both were considered fully legal. However, most of the population retained extremely conservative views regarding abortion and contraception- the vestiges of French colonial rule.

As a result, in 2006, Togolese lawmakers passed a law stating, “voluntary interruption of pregnancy is only authorized when prescribed by a doctor and on request of the woman in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or of an incestuous relationship.” Further, the law requires that the woman obtain the permission of her family in all cases. All individuals involved in illegal abortions could, as per this law, face fines and up to five years in prison.

If Claudia ever goes to trial, this is the fate that awaits her- an additional five years in prison and fines. Claudia’s child, on the other hand, will face what academics have termed Social Death. Because the child was born in prison, they will most likely not receive a birth certificate, which means they are not eligible for adoption or vaccination. Later, Claudia will find it difficult to enroll her child in school. Without an education, the child becomes much more likely to become a victim of human trafficking or child labor. Claudia’s child will effectively be erased the moment they’re born.

The United Nations recognizes a woman’s right to choose to abort an unwanted child for any reason. I can only hope that, in time, Togo will recognize this right as well. No woman should ever have to choose between abortion and social death for her child.

Rebecca Eder

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