Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazakstan: Illegal Abortion Concerns Mount
Twenty-year-old Aigal met Nurjan, a soldier, last summer. She found it hard to resist his advances. “One time I gave in to his urging,” she sighed. After that, he began to demand sex frequently, promising that eventually they would marry.
In September, she found out that she was pregnant. On the advice of an old friend, she went to a woman who provides illegal abortions at home. “What else could I do?” said Aigul. “What would have happened to me if the village had found out about my pregnancy?”
Aigul’s case is not unusual. For Muslim girls living in the south of Kazakstan, sex before marriage is strictly forbidden. In rural villages where some families still observe the medieval tradition of examining the sheets of a newly married couple the morning after their wedding, the pregnancy of an unmarried woman is a cause of shame and disgrace.
But when these girls move to the city, they experience a more permissive lifestyle. Excited by their sudden freedom, but too embarrassed to find out about contraception, many young women end up becoming pregnant, and then rush to conceal it from their families.
“Girls from Muslim families who come to the city from villages face many temptations,” said Nine Volchenko, a senior schoolteacher. “Influenced by boyfriends, and enjoying a new social life, they try to get everything that they were deprived of when they were under strict parental control. This sometimes results in undesired pregnancy. And then the poor girls wreck their lives and their bodies.”
Even though abortion has always been legal in Kazakstan, girls choose to have illegal abortions because they want to remain anonymous.
Aigul, who moved to Shymkent when the collective farms closed down, explained, “I was scared to go to hospital, because you need to give your address. My friend who works at the market advised me to go to a woman she knew, gave me her address and went there with me.”
Young women like Aigul appear ignorant about birth control despite the ready availability of information about family planning and sexual health. The United Nations Population Fund has implemented a comprehensive reproductive health strategy throughout Kazakstan, and the clinic in Shymkent is one of its pilot projects. The centre has five consulting rooms, and any woman is eligible for a free advice and contraception. However, specialists there told IWPR that the facility is hardly used, and the girls who most need advice are afraid to ask for it.
Rasima, a doctor at the centre, explained, “Our women prefer to solve everything secretly with the help of old women who often do not even have secondary school education.” Mukhabbat, a gynaecologist, agreed, “I think that our women, especially in villages, are stuck in the middle ages. There are so many contraceptives available now, and they are well advertised. However, even talking about this is considered shameful.”
One of the main obstacles in confronting the problem of illegal abortions is that there is so little statistical data around. In Kazakstan, which has a population of 15 million, there are 300,000 legal abortions every year. But there are hardly any official figures for illegal terminations, since they only come to light when there are complications and medical aid is required.
Complications often arise from botched abortions, which can be life threatening.
“ [Some] women who have illegal abortions are almost dead when they get to hospital,” said Mukhabbat. “To cause an abortion, they sit for a long time in a bath full of very hot water, hit their stomachs [and] sometimes they put soapy water or hard objects into their uterus – their inventiveness is quite amazing. We see patients like these almost every day.”
It is not only those from poor, rural backgrounds who resort to these methods. Becoming pregnant out of wedlock is as shaming for middle-class women.
Gulnara, 21, who is from a prosperous family, is student at a Shymkent university. She became pregnant in her third year, and her friends advised her to go an old lady who performs illegal abortions. Gulnara’s family could easily pay for her to have an abortion in the best clinics of Kazakstan, Russia, or even outside the CIS. “Why did I have an illegal abortion?” she asked. “Because if they found out at home, I would be in serious trouble.” To avoid her family’s anger, Gulnara had a back-street termination, risking serious injury.
Social pressures are such that even those girls hospitalised following unlawful terminations will not disclose who operated on them out of fear their pregnancies will be publicised. “We are informed by the hospital when women come to us with the diagnosis of ‘illegal abortion’,” said police captain Askar Duisenov.
“But they refuse to give testimonies, saying that they terminated the pregnancy themselves. It is clear that it is almost impossible to perform this operation yourself. You can understand these women: they will do everything to stop the real reason for their ailment becoming public. And if the woman does not admit anything, then there are no grounds for opening a criminal case.”
The secrecy around abortion is understandable given the harsh treatment unmarried women receive if their families find out they got pregnant.
One of Volchenko’s pupils, Saule, became pregnant at the age of 17. She managed to conceal it from her family, and gave birth, alone, in the bath. The child was stillborn, and Saule hid the corpse in the refuse tip of nearby university accommodation, but it was found the next day when students set fire to the rubbish. The police eventually traced Saule, and her story was made public. She was brutally beaten by her elder brother and sent to live with relatives in a distant village. She has little to look forward to there but shame and humiliation.
Olga Dosybieva is an IWPR correspondent in Shymkent.
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