Vanuatu health workers warn of backyard abortion dangers | Pacific Beat

Vanuatu health workers warn of backyard abortion dangers

Vanuatu health workers warn of backyard abortion dangers

Updated 20 June 2014, 9:34 AEST

Across the Pacific, birth rates - particularly amongst teenage girls - are some of the highest in the world.

A record number of deliveries at Vanuatu's main hospital last year is proof of that, with more than 3000 babies born - an increase of nearly 20 per cent on 2012.

But what is much more hidden is the number of babies not being delivered.

In almost all circumstances, abortions are illegal in Vanuatu, but health workers fear the number of backyard terminations may be on the rise and research is about to get underway to find out exactly what is happening.

Reporter: Catherine Graue

Speakers: Vanuatu mother Jenny Kelep; Norley Jack, Wan Smol Bag nurse; Arnold Bani, Vanuatu Family Health Association; Dr Tony Harry, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Port Vila Centra Hospital

GRAUE: 20-year-old Jenny Kelep is a new mother to three week old Susannah.

She may be surviving on little sleep but is relishing her role.

But she wasn't always so convinced about motherhood.

KELEP: When I first found out I was pregnant, I thought a lot of different things. Sometimes I thought I should just abort the baby. I was frightened.

GRAUE: At 19, Jenny discovered she was pregnant - after being pressured by her then-boyfriend to have sex without a condom because he wanted children.

She was too scared to tell her parents. Her mother had long-warned her not to get pregnant until she was at least 22, when she would be mature enough to care for a child.

Abortion in Vanuatu is illegal - except for when the mother's life is in danger.

And so Jenny turned to friends for help and advice.

It's a familiar story to health workers like Norley Jack - who works at the youth centre, Wan Smol Bag in Port Vila.

JACK: Almost every week we see one or two girls. Maybe they are from a secondary school, they miss their period and come asking for an abortion, asking for something that might help them abort the baby.

GRAUE: Jenny Kelep's friends are among those girls.

KELEP: There are many girls, my friends including some of my bestfriends who are the same age as me about 20, so are a little older and some are even younger than me, who have aborted their babies. Sometimes they do it because they just want to keep enjoying their life and they're scared they won't be able to do that because they're pregnant. Others have abortions because they're scared of telling their parents. For some it's almost a game - and they keep having abortions everytime they get pregnant.

GRAUE: Because abortion isn't available through clinics and hospitals here - some turn to what could is known as "kastom medicine".

Arnold Bani is the Chief Executive of the Vanuatu Family Health Association - a group that provides family planning advice.

But Mr Bani says they often have women coming to them to either ask for an abortion - or with complications arising from having terminated their baby on their own.

BANI: There might be several ways a girl to her own abortion. For example, on an island in south Vanuatu, they use the bark of a tree to help get rid of the baby. Other islands use local leaves - each use something different.

Dr Tony Harry a gynaecologist at the Port Vila Central Hospital warns by doing so, women are putting themselves in extreme danger.

HARRY: That's very dangerous to do this kind of stuff because if you end up in facilities where there's no hospital with instruments that can do evacuation in theatre or there's no hospital that has a theatre in its facilities, that's very dangerous because if you do that and you start bleeding, it will be very difficult .

GRAUE: The Vanuatu Family Health Association's Arnold Bani says there's no data available at all on just how many illegal abortions are taking place - and he fears that what anecdotal information there is, is only a small indication of the full scale of the problem.

BANI: It's a really big issue. And not only are girls aborting babies but we think the rates of infanticide are really high too with girls dumping babies once they've given birth. So yes, it seems that all around the country this is happening - but quietly.

GRAUE: Across the Pacific, being sexually active out of wedlock is considered taboo - mainly for religious reasons - which means open and frank discussion about sex and contraception is rare.

Less than one in every 3 women in Vanuatu is using some form of contraception and doctors at the Port Vila Central Hospital say that is the problem - they need to dramatically increase those numbers in order to prevent the many unwanted pregnancies, particularly amongst teenage girls. They say that may be a long term solution and a complicated one at that, but it would be much easier than trying to legalise abortion in a country as religious and as rich in culture as Vanuatu.

Dr Tony Harry again.

HARRY: It's much better in our conscious that we are not doing it, somebody else will be doing it. And that somebody else doing will probably has to jiggle around with his conscious in terms of his Christian belief. The best way to do is it is not to legalise abortion at the moment because a lot of organisations would be resistant in getting it legalised. But I think the best way to go is to get our CPR rate, getting contraceptive commodities available to the wider community and advocate through the education system, which we are using. I think 100 per cent would be unrealistic, Vanuatu is sitting at 28 per cent but probably we should increase it beyond 50 per cent.

GRAUE: But some want stop the secrecy and bring the issue to the national agenda.

Arnold Bani's organisation is about to launch a 2-year investigation into just how many unsafe and illegal abortions are taking place. It will include surveys in 3 of Vanuatu's six provinces.

The Association will also look at whether Vanuatu's current abortion policy is effective and develop recommendations for the government, based on its findings.

BANI: We need to collect data that can help the government and decision makers look at exactly what is the situation on the ground.

GRAUE: But for Jenny - she is grateful she kept her baby. But believes women in Vanuatu should have a safe choice.

KELEP: On the one hand, I think it would be good if abortion was made legal so it's easier and safer. But on the other side, if a woman doesn't want a baby, there's no need to make it! In my case, if I'd followed my friends and had an abortion, I wouldn't have such a beautiful child in my life.

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