Sewa* was only 17 when she discovered that she was pregnant. She accepted that she was unprepared to raise a child and made the choice to get an abortion. With the law against her—in Nigeria, it carries a 14-year jail sentence—she had to rely on her boyfriend to find a clinic that would perform the procedure discreetly. At the hospital, she was at the mercy of “cold” doctors, who, she said, “seemed like anything could happen to me and they would get away with it.” And after the procedure, the doctors offered no further advice, no medication, to deal with any possible after-effects. She left the clinic feeling unsafe and stigmatized.
It was stories like Sewa’s that motivated Damilola Onosowobo Marcus to reach out to several Nigerian women in November 2020, with the plan to start a new advocacy group. An oil painter and brand identity designer, Damilola had experience mobilizing for women’s causes, including starting the Market March Movement in 2018. For three months, the women she reached out to deliberated on her proposal. The result is Operation Legalise Abortion (OLA), a feminist collective dedicated to women’s reproductive rights, particularly pro-choice legislation.
By the time it launched in February 2021, the group had at least 60 members based in Nigeria, the US, and Cameroun. They include psychotherapist Ibifubara Davies, art studio manager Oiza Jagun, journalist Aisha Salaudeen, healthcare specialist Kimberly Duru, pharmacist Chisom Nwagba, digital content marketer Aisha Owolabi, event manager Nneka Ibeh, and nurse Zainab Akinlawon.
Many of the members are motivated by their own experiences and the experiences of those close to them. Their endgame is simple: re-educating women regarding their status in society and abolishing the misogynistic law.
“It started out as a forum for us to talk about how we can legalize abortion in Nigeria,” Marcus, also the group’s spokesperson, tells me. “We wanted to figure out what we could do about it and put it at the forefront of our conversations as feminists. People tend to dance around the subject. Many organizations were not tackling it head-on. We wanted to be a voice that would be out there, bold enough to say ‘We are pro-choice, we are pro-abortion.’”
According to the PMA2020 Abortion Survey, between 1.8 million and 2.7 million abortions occur annually in Nigeria, despite the risk of jailtime for women. The terminations, Marcus explains, is an inevitable need for women who chose to, as the pregnancy is dependent on their lives. Unplanned pregnancies usually lead to children whose parents cannot fully cater for. Partly due to this, more than 70% of children in Nigeria live in poverty.
But there is another consequence of the draconian law that is much more fatal. “Abortion accounts for 40% of maternal deaths in Nigeria,” says Omotoyosi Salami, a student and member of OLA. Estimates of annual abortion-related deaths in Nigeria range from 6,000 to 20,000. The procedures tend to be carried out outside formal healthcare, with the women relying on the unsafe services of unlicensed practitioners.
“It is that big of an issue,” Salami continues. “This is utterly lamentable and should be a national cause for concern. Yet nobody with power seems to care. It’s not even a discussion among any group of people other than feminists.”
Access to standard abortion-related healthcare is rare in Nigeria, and is worsening. In 1996, 33% of health facilities in the country reported offering induced abortion services. By 2012, the number shrank to 8%. This has been attributed to the growing social conservatism in the country.
“Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the studies and the numbers,” notes Hillary Essien, a journalist member, “but these are real women, going through hoops to terminate pregnancies they don’t want because of the legal implications here. It is saddening.”
There is also the reluctance of the legislature. In 2006, Nigerian senators vehemently rejected a Reproductive Health Bill presented by Senator Daisy Danjuma and sponsored by the Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria (SOGON), mostly because of its implications for women’s right to abortion. A survey revealed that one-third of Nigeria’s policymakers believe abortion should be illegal under every circumstance, even if it would save a woman’s life. The same survey also noted that most policymakers knew very little about abortion laws and the state of abortion-related fatalities in the country.
“They are not going to listen to us; this is not going to do anything for their elections,” Marcus says. “Before you can convert even popular opinion into policy, it is a difficult process. Imagine moving to legalize something much more controversial like abortion.”
Marcus sees pro-abortion activism as not just a legal fight but a cultural one. “Nigeria is a very religious country and people think their religions are anti-abortion,” she says. “Another problem is the patriarchy. Women are often viewed not as full, autonomous human beings but as extensions of their fathers and husbands. They are seen simply as objects of reproduction.”
With these multi-layered obstacles, the women of OLA are playing the long game. At the moment, they are focused on changing public opinion, on establishing conversations around reproductive rights. The group has a series called “Abortion Stories,” which documents and humanizes the difficult experiences of Nigerian women. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, the group began a series dedicated to “debunking one #AbortionMyth every single day.”
The women of OLA are using a detailed approach, like two major feminist groups founded last year. #StateOfEmergencyGBV—an alliance of Stand to End Rape Initiative, TeachHerNG, SilverchipFox, YIAGA Africa, Connected Development, Education as a Vaccine, Girl Child Africa, Enough is Enough, and Dorothy Njemanze Foundation—sprang up in June 2020, when women across the country took to the streets to protest against rape and sexual violence. It was able to force the government’s hand, with governors declaring a state of emergency on rape. Feminist Coalition, founded in August 2020, has the goal of combating the gender divide in education and leadership. It famously took on a central role during the #EndSARS protests, providing protesters with legal aid, feeding, and emergency healthcare. Maximizing social media visibility in garnering international support, the group raised $387,000 in donations.
— Operation Legalise Abortion (@OLAbortion) March 8, 2021
“Being in a community of like-minded women has been so great,” notes Kehinde Adeleye, an educator and one of the earliest members, about OLA. “These women are all intelligent and have so many bright ideas that we’ve all been working hard towards. Whenever one person has problems with doing their tasks, we could always assist in making it work out. It’s beautiful to see and I know we are going to achieve so much more together.”
After its fight against the cultural stigmatization of abortion, OLA aims to ride the potential wave of popular acceptance and face the government. For this reason, Marcus explains, it is seeking allyship from outside feminist circles, from “women who are not even interested in those sorts of things.” It also has a base of male allies.
OLA plans to collaborate with other local and international organizations like Marie Stopes and Pro-Choice NG. However, it is not in a rush to secure funding as it has not yet achieved its intended structure. Currently, the women use their personal resources to execute projects.
“When Nigerian women are able to access safe and legal abortions, they do not have to risk their lives and wellbeing by seeking unqualified providers and having the procedure in unsafe conditions,” says Salami. “This means less female deaths. Also, women are not forced to carry a pregnancy, not put through the trauma and dehumanization of it—and their human rights and bodily autonomy are not violated.”
Marcus buttresses her point: “We as women need to take charge our lives. We cannot do any of that in full if at the core of it we do not have reproductive rights. A lot of these issues stem from people seeing women as a class to be exploited for its reproductive capabilities. Without reproductive rights, there is no such thing as women’s liberation.”
*Real name has been changed.
Edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young.
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.