In Vanuatu, 31% of men and 49% of women support the use of modern family planning contraception however that doesn’t necessarily mean they use it.
Despite having reasonable access to sexual and reproductive health clinics, the use of contraception remains a controversial issue in religious, moral and cultural terms in Vanuatu.
Women continue to live at risk of unplanned pregnancies and although some of them are conscious of the physical and socioeconomic values of using family planning, many still fail to use contraception. According to a 2015 research paper on induced abortion conducted by Vanuatu Family Health Association (VFHA), reasons include contraceptives not being available in the area, a lack of information and a fear of side effects. A staggering 35% of youth cited opposition from their partner.
The unmet need for family planning exposes women to unwanted pregnancy and potentially induced abortion. Vila Central Hospital (VCH) reported that in the years 2008 to 2013, 21% of pregnancies were unplanned.
Julie Aru, Program Manager of the VFHA, says she often encounters women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. ‘We provide antenatal services at VFHA and there are women who refuse to accept their pregnancy,’ she says. ‘We usually do a good job to support them by providing counseling to help them make the right choices. In some hospitals, couples can put their names down in the maternity ward to apply for adoption.
To prevent unwanted pregnancies, we strongly stress the use of Family Planning methods to young girls/boys and to women after delivering babies. In Vanuatu abortion is illegal and yet there are some women who practice unsafe abortion by using other resources.
Some will use herbal custom leaf provided by cleavers and others that are well off with access to modern technology will do their research on medical abortions and then buy the drugs at private pharmacies.’
It is believed that nearly all abortions in Vanuatu are performed by a person lacking necessary skills in an environment that does not conform to the minimal medical standards recommended by WHO. ‘Backyard abortions’ increases the risk of maternal death and mental and physical disabilities, particularly if a woman suffers complications and has no access to medical facilities or a medical practitioner.
In 2014, 38 procedures of Dilation and Curettage (D&C) were reported from the Northern Province Hospital and more than 14 D&C procedures from Vila Central Hospital. The reports did not classify the procedures by cause so it remains unclear if the abortions were a miscarriage, safe or unsafe abortion.
Under section 117 of the Penal Code, an abortion can be performed for ‘medical reasons’ to save a woman’s life – however what constitutes a ‘medical reason’ is not clearly defined. Alarmingly, it is illegal to perform an abortion in cases of rape or incest and if a woman procures her own termination, she can face up to two years imprisonment. Since 1995, there have only been 2 cases of illegal abortion brought to the regular court of law.
‘To reduce maternal morality and save a woman’s life, section 117 should be reviewed,’ says Mrs. Aru. ‘For example, if a disabled woman gets raped, does that classify as affecting the woman’s health? If she is pregnant and has the baby, how can she take care of the baby when she can’t even take care of herself? The laws need to be clearer on what is restricted and what is not.’
Mrs. Norley Jack, a nurse from Wan Smol Bag’s Kam Pusem Hed clinic, says it’s frustrating to educate youth who come to the clinic and are given pamphlets about safe sex, only to see them later return to the clinic asking for an abortion.
‘They should already know the consequences of unsafe sex – they are just being ignorant. Contraception is free at our clinic! I believe that if we legalize abortion, it will only increase the amount of unwanted pregnancies rather than reduce them. Some young people will decide to participate in sexual activity without contraception because they know that they can abort the baby later,’ Mrs. Jack said.
Mrs. Jack also says that it’s not just young women seeking abortions – there are married women who already have children who experience an unwanted pregnancy. Mrs. Jack believes that the best way to combat unwanted pregnancies is to promote family planning.
‘If you don’t want a baby, then you have to take contraception or abstain. Vanuatu is a Christian country and we live by our motto, ‘Long God Yumi Stanap’. To have a baby is a miracle and a gift. To have an abortion is the same as killing a baby,’ she said.
Despite the heavy restrictions on abortion, there is no indication in the Penal Code or any other policies that outlaws access to post abortion care, which is classified as a sexual health service.
In a country where kastom and Christianity is deeply entrenched, it’s unlikely that lifting restrictions on abortion would be a priority for Parliament.
In a Letter to the Editor in January 2017, a reader asked what the government is planning to do to ‘curb abortion’ which is ‘becoming a very serious issue in the country today. The reason why it is not talked openly about is that it is perhaps seen as taboo but it is not because it is illegal to kill a life. It is a sin and therefore it is a crime.’
If it is illegal for a woman to have an abortion, then shouldn’t it also be illegal for a man to opt out of a pregnancy too? Why should the responsibility of the child’s upbringing fall solely on a woman when it took two people to create its life? It is essential that the father is also held legally responsible and that the law strictly enforces child maintenance.
Furthermore, if reviewing the policy on abortion is not an option, perhaps we can review the policies surrounding child maintenance instead. At the moment, a woman who is seeking support from her child’s father can request up to 1000vt a week per child. What a joke.
At the very least, the government needs to provide services to accommodate these unwanted pregnancies to ensure the child’s quality of life after it is born. That requires strengthening existing services and supporting social welfare, health, education and shelter.
The reality is that children from unwanted pregnancies often live a lower quality of life and it is a sad fact that children who have been adopted out are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with a woman. Maternal and reproductive health is a social issue and a collect effort is required to deal with the issue of unwanted pregnancies. In the end, it is the children who suffer if their basic needs are not met. We have to remember that these children will be the future generation of Vanuatu and we all have a responsibility to raise them to ensure a strong nation.
By Yasmine Bjornum
This article was originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.