There was an article in the newspapers the other day about a nurse committing an illegal abortion on a grade 10 student, and being sentence to 2 years in jail and hard labour. Everyone who heard it was horrified at the callousness of the nurse, performing such an operation on such a young girl, ending a life before it had even started. The nurse's association of the Gambia issued a press release distancing themselves from the whole stinking affair, and claiming that the woman who had performed the abortion should not be called a nurse, as she had carried out her operations without a proper license. People made the right noises of disapproval when someone brought the topic up in conversation, before hastily moving on to something else. And, as always, everyone refused to examine - or even acknowledge - the problem behind the problem.
Here is what typically happens to a schoolgirl who gets pregnant in The Gambia:
1) You discover the pregnancy. You panic, and tell your best friend, who panics. You tell your boyfriend - who tells his best friend - and they both panic. Someone, somewhere in the mess you're in now, suggests a doctor who can be discreet, or a marabout who can give you medicine which, as soon as you drink it, will somehow 'melt' the fetus (you are ready to believe anything at this stage, cling on to any thread). Your boyfriend starts asking around, covertly. You try to go on at home as though nothing had happened, not telling your Mum, evading the presence of your Dad because - who knows - old people might have a way to detect these things. Thank God your Mum is deadly embarrassed about such things as the human body, and has never ever had a serious conversation about such things as sex with you, except for a tightening of the mouth whenever you wear something too short, or are seen with boys.
2) As the weeks progress, your panic increases and becomes a raw fear which has you lying awake at night unable to go to sleep. Your boyfriend cannot find an abortionist - everyone has heard about one who is very good, no one knows where to find one. You lose weight and develop rings under your eyes from worry, and lack of sleep. Your Mum finally asks you what's wrong, and unable to hold it in any longer you give in to the pity on her face, daring to hope that perhaps she is not so bad, and collapse into her arms, crying and confessing. She throws her arms in the air and wails, accusing you of bringing shame onto the family, and what will she tell your Dad?
3) Your Father kicks you out of the house, when your Mother tells him. You go to live with a cousin, or a pitying friend whose parents don't mind. Your boyfriend stops visiting. People talk about you - they look at you with disdain when you pass them on the streets. Your boyfriend is rarely even mentioned, or when he is it is with a certain amount of admiration, at his male prowess. You are the stupid bitch who opened her legs - he is the 'you-old-dog-you' guy who scored. He should be congratulated - you should be shamed.
4) The bulge becomes noticeable. One Monday morning the headmaster calls you into his office and expels you from school. On your way out, stunned, you see your boyfriend leaving class with his mates. You call out his name desperately, but he hurries on ahead, like he didn't see you.
5) Welcome to hardship, and pain, and long nights lying awake sobbing into the bedclothes until they become soggy and wet under you. It's better, after the baby's born, though your heart almost breaks the day the christening ceremony is supposed to happen, and all that happens is that your friend you're staying with's mum gets some meat and cooks benachin, and buys some drinks and calls one or two old men from the street to give the baby boy you brought back from the hospital a name.
6) You can't get a job, because you didn't finish high school. You can't get back into school, because there is no-one to pay - your best friend's mum is doing quite a lot as it is, helping to pay for the child's food and clothes. In any case no school would take you, except for one of the vocational training centers, where you will learn typewriting and English, so you can become a secretary somewhere. Desperately you look around for someone to marry you, so at least you will have someone who can support you. You have given up dreaming about a career in the fashion world, like you used to - dreaming takes up too much time, and the baby doesn't give you this luxury.
Now why, having a choice between the above and abortion, do you think many of our girls would prefer an abortion?
Of course what the nurse did was wrong, performing such a risky operation on a girl without her parent's knowledge or consent. But jailing nurses who carry out abortions is not going to solve the problem of young girls having abortions, because it does not go to the heart of the matter.
Every month, in the news, there is a report about a baby being found dumped at a garbage dump, or flushed down a toilet. Hold in check that thought about Gambian girls being heartless and cruel: they don't do it because they hate the baby, and want to snuff out its life. They do it because they can see the world of pain waiting for them, if they should keep the baby. It's more self-preservation than inhumanity. They made a mistake, and there's absolutely no one willing to forgive them for this mistake - either their parents, or the community they live in. And so they choose the easy path. Which is not necessarily the right path, but most of these girls are nothing more than teenagers, whose hormones got the better of them.
Having sex and getting pregnant amongst teenagers over here has become one of those cliched evils, that generation after generation treat the same way, punishing perpetrators without ever sitting down to think through issues. There have been some improvements: some parents don't kick their kids out of the house, some parents are supportive and help the kids to go on with their lives, and become full and active members of society again. But a lot of parents still need to be educated, and taught that having a child out of wedlock as a teenager is not as bad as their parents made them believe, and is certainly not worth kicking someone out of the house over. There is also a problem with the custom (I'm not sure it's even a constitutional law, which is why I call it a custom) of kicking girls out of school and not allowing them to continue even after their pregnancy ends, whilst the guilty guy gets to finish school like nothing happened, oh no, they just knocked someone up, but who cares? I'm not advocating kicking the boys out too, as some people have suggested - I'm all for letting the girl back in, afterwards. It is not the school's place to pass moral judgments on people.
I think we need to really re-think this whole issue, if we are genuinely interested in saving the lives of babies, and making the lives of women better in this country. Sure, laws and prison sentences to offenders are good, and give you control over your populace. But changes in policy and getting people to look at things from a different angle are generally more beneficial in the long term because they lead to less crimes, and a much better society.