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Nigerian Police Become Allies for Safe Abortion

In Nigeria, where most pregnancy terminations are illegal, a women’s reproductive health organization called Ipas is harnessing the power of the police to expand abortion access. Hauwa Shekarau, the group’s Nigeria country director, explains how.

Written by Elizabeth Dwyer Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A police officer stands guard in Lagos, Nigeria, on May 1, 2014. AP/ Sunday Alamba

Each year, Nigerian women undergo 1.25 million abortions, with nearly all performed clandestinely, resulting in 500,000 women with health complications. Restrictive abortion laws ban the procedure except when prescribed by a doctor to save a woman’s life – in a country that has such low contraceptive access, only 10 percent of married women use birth control. Nigeria’s abortion law is based on the same 1861 Offenses Against Persons Act that governs Northern Ireland’s rules, which pro-choice advocates are protesting this week by using drones to deliver abortion pills.

While Nigeria may not have drones, one organization is harnessing another unlikely tool for abortion support: the police.

Ipas, a global nonprofit women’s health organization, conducts reproductive health rights training for police across West Africa. In Nigeria, it has established a strong relationship with the inspector-general of police, enabling it to transform hundreds of officers into allies for safe, legal healthcare for women. As a result, the officers are adding strength to a growing movement to change abortion laws and help save lives.

Ipas country director Hauwa Shekarau explains the techniques that the organization uses to inspire police to see abortion through a woman’s eyes – and support her safe access to the health services she needs.

Women & Girls Hub: Abortion is allowed in Nigeria only if the woman’s life is in danger. How does that work in practice?

Hauwa Shekarau: The decision is actually the doctor’s to make – not the woman’s – and the way the law is crafted is actually quite confusing. Do you wait until a woman is gasping for air before you determine that her life is in danger?

We found in the course of our work in Nigeria that medical doctors and mid-level providers who are trained and skilled in women’s health are shying away from providing services – even from post-abortion care that is within the law.

When a woman who has gone somewhere to start the process of abortion and is rushed to the hospital with post-abortion complications, a lot of doctors say, “I don’t want to get involved.” This is because of the fear of the police who are constantly harassing and intimidating them, and using the opportunity to extort money from them.

We felt that the police needed to understand the difference between skilled providers and the quacks – the ones who are actually killing women. We educate the police about the lifesaving services that the skilled providers are doing.

Now with the police being supportive, being empathetic, providers are able to carry out their work so those women don’t die – without fear of intimidation or harassment.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you transform police officers into allies for women’s healthcare?

Shekarau: Through empathy and rights-based training. One of our training modules has to do with empathetic skills and another has to do with the human rights angle.

In one key exercise, we give them two real-life scenarios they can identify with, with four options for them to pick from.

We ask them, what would you do if you found yourself in this kind of a situation – as a person, not just a police officer?

For example, you go for a walk, go to sleep, and then at 2 a.m. some thieves break into the house. It happens daily. After ransacking the house and picking up the valuables, three of them decide to have a go at the wife by raping her. You later discover that she’s pregnant. What would you do with that pregnancy? Many of them would choose to abort it. Then we remind them that the law says you cannot abort. What would you do? The reality dawns.

Whether you are a police officer or not, you don’t live on the moon. You live in this country, the same one that all of us live in. Police officers are not immune to the challenges that other people have. Some of them have daughters, some of them have wives, some of them have aunties who are women who are facing some of these challenges.

Sometimes when things happen to other people, it’s like it’s something far away. But when it happens close to home, then reality dawns and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

This has really helped them to clarify their values and become empathetic.

When a woman gets an unwanted pregnancy, she doesn’t care about what the law says: She will do anything to get rid of it. As men, if the police have somebody close to them who faces that, they would even help ensure that she gets rid of it. This tells us that this law that we have is not responsive to the yearnings of the people. It shows that we need to change that law.

Women & Girls Hub: How does the human rights training Ipas provides influence police officers’ approach to abortion law enforcement?

Shekarau: Our rights-based training lets them understand that abortion is illegal, alright, but Nigeria has agreed to implement international, regional and bilateral human rights treaties that protect women’s rights and women’s health. We’ve signed and ratified the Maputo Protocol, for example, which calls for access to safe abortion care. If they understand this commitment that Nigeria has made, then Nigeria is duty-bound internationally to provide these services.

They begin to understand the fact that, yes, the law is restrictive, but Nigeria owes the women of Nigeria some commitment to ensure their health is protected, that they have access to safe services and that they enjoy quality healthcare.

Women & Girls Hub: As a result of Ipas’ training, do police officers become advocates for changing the abortion law?

Shekarau: That is not actually the objective. The original direct intention is to get them to stop harassing and intimidating providers so that providers can feel free to carry out services without any fear of intimidation.

We work to make them empathetic and see why women would want to go to a health provider to seek a safe service – and to make them understand that when women do not get safe services, the alternative is to go to a quack, and that can lead to their death.

What we have discovered in the course of doing that, we’ve been able to change their mindset to the point where some of them become advocates. We didn’t set out for them to become advocates, but they turn out to be advocates – it’s like an indirect outcome of the training we have.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the future of abortion legislation in Nigeria?

Shekarau: This law, as it is in place now, is difficult to implement and it’s difficult to secure a conviction. At the end of the day, it’s as good as a dead law.

In our legislative engagement, we try to bring in police officers to ask them to share their experiences. They’ve always said that, in their experience, there is indeed a need to change this law.

We haven’t yet gotten a political win. The parliament sadly is mostly populated by men who don’t see the need for it, and then we’ve also had religious bodies who tend to stand in the way of these laws being changed. We are constantly engaging the process, advocating, calling on people. I know that it is just a matter of time; things will change.

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