Sierra Leone Telegraph: 3 February 2016
Much has been said about the Safe Abortion Act that was recently passed by parliament in Sierra Leone, but now stuck in parliamentary red tape, after president Ernest Bai Koroma refused to give his assent on religious grounds.
Religious leaders in the country are vigorously opposing the right of women to decide their own reproductive health.
Pregnancy and abortion are arguably public health issues, best addressed by medical professionals. But somehow, the religious hierarchy has decided that women, along with their chosen health professionals are not qualified to decide their own reproductive destiny.
Has president Koroma allowed religious freedom to take women’s right to choose as hostage?
As it is highly unlikely that a woman would visit her medical doctor to seek spiritual healing, so too would it seem illogical that she would go to her pastor for medical consultation or treatment.
What these men and women of God fail to realize is that you cannot legislate morality.
Even though there are laws meant to prevent people from using drugs, they still find themselves battling addiction for years if not decades.
Look at the oldest profession in the world, prostitution. Globally, prostitution is illegal in most places, but remains very difficult to eradicate. Although it is illegal, and many believe it is an immoral sin, prostitution lives on.
With all the fuss about safe abortions for women in Sierra Leone, the burning question is, what have the religious leaders done to help women and girls who find themselves seeking to terminate their pregnancies?
For decades, pregnancy has been a major risk factor for premature deaths among girls and women in Sierra Leone.
Yet, religious leaders have been quick to point out that abortion is a sin, and women who chose to abort are murderers.
But what should be said about religious institutions and their leaders that have watched for years, as Sierra Leone climbed to a country with one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world?
How many care centres have they established to support unwed mothers? How many schools do they have for pregnant girls?
How many job training programs have they created, so women will be able to provide for their children?
How many reproductive health programs have they funded to make sure women are educated about family planning?
When women are better educated, they delay having children, they have fewer of them, and they have healthier babies.
When women are given economic opportunities, they invest more of their financial resources into their families, which produce greater and positive outcomes for their children.
Although one may appreciate the spiritual interests of pastors, imams, bishops, and other clerics in promoting the eternal souls of women, they would however, gain greater appreciation for their advocacy if they were more proactively working toward the needs of women here on earth.
How often have religious leaders in Sierra Leone stormed State House to insist that women must be provided with safe, affordable, and accessible healthcare?
Abortion is a symptom of a much bigger problem. It is easy to shame women and call them sinners and murderers, but what about the economic, social and political conditions that have left women in Sierra Leone with no alternative but to abort.
With youth unemployment estimated at about 70%, how can a young woman support a child from an unplanned pregnancy?
With health facilities lacking, and concerns about receiving quality care, how many women really want to risk pregnancy in Sierra Leone?
Let us also not forget the father of the nation, president Ernest Bai Koroma. After receiving millions of dollars in donor funds, specifically meant for women and children under five years old, the risks associated with pregnancy and being born in Sierra Leone, have not reduced in spite of these funds.
If women who seek safe abortions to terminate their pregnancies are murderers, what is president Ernest Koroma who has continued to allow the sky rocketing death rate of women and their children since taking office in 2007?
Last year, president Koroma was so overwhelmed by the sight of his citizens waiting for public transport, that he insisted that the nation borrow $12 million to help alleviate the problem.
Spend $12 million on girls’ and women’s education and vocational skills training in Sierra Leone, and the investment returns to the nation will be immense.
Take the ultra-modern Sierra Leone embassy scheduled to open in Ethiopia later this year. How many ultra-modern birthing facilities has Ernest Koroma opened for women and children in Sierra Leone?
Are women and children second class citizens in the country? How can the president contemplate taking on a mammoth debt estimated at over $400 million, for the proposed Mamamah Airport only to achieve his political ambition, yet refuse to provide proper healthcare for women? (Photo: The existing airport is yet to reach full capacity, yet there is talk of building a new one at $400 million).
Do these alarming death rates in the country concern the President?
Wouldn’t world class health facilities be a greater legacy for the president, than a new international airport which most women in the country will never live long enough to afford the cost of using?
Abortion should be less about morality and more about finding solutions that will save and protect lives.
Social issues could be tackled in Sierra Leone, if the faith community spends more time rolling their sleeves up and working hard to address those issues, rather than standing on the sidelines offering lectures to the already oppressed and downtrodden.
In this ongoing debate about abortion in Sierra Leone, it must be acknowledged that faith community’s opposition to abortion, is a reflection of their beliefs, and they have every right to share their objections.
However, the question that must be asked is what are they going to do to reduce and eliminate the conditions that girls and women face, that make them seek abortions in the first place?
It is time for religious groups in Sierra Leone to be more proactive in creating greater opportunities for girls and women in the country.
Standing on the lines and cherry picking those issues they find convenient to vocalize, is not good enough.
Women and children are already dying from years of neglect and inaction. Will these faith leaders take up the challenge, by creating programs and services that will not only improve the well being of young girls and women in the country, but elevate their social status and economic empowerment?
The government of Sierra Leone has already shown they are incapable of providing sustainable solutions to the myriad of health, social and economic problems that young girls and women are facing in Sierra Leone, so now it is up to other leaders to show the way.