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‘If I Could Do It, Why Can’t She?’: The Politics of Abortion in Sri Lanka and How the Government is Failing Women

By Tiara De Silva



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As a young, Sri Lankan woman in Australia, I have the ability to walk into a women’s health clinic and obtain misopristol, the life saving pill for thousands of women, who are not ready to carry out a pregnancy.


In Sri Lanka however, the issue of abortion remains deeply entrenched in outdated, colonial legislation, casting a shadow over women's reproductive rights. Despite attempts to advance in several spheres of governance and advocacy, the country's Penal Code continues to wield a heavy hand, particularly through Section 303.


A Law of Colonialism: 

Untouched since its inception during the British colonisation of Sri Lanka in 1883, Section 303 of the Penal Code outlines severe penalties for those involved in intentionally causing a miscarriage, unless it's done in good faith to safeguard the woman's life. However, the law’s promotion of preserving the “sanctity” of life,  which clarifies a procedure must only be done “in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman”, has been a point of contention. In the eyes of the government, what constitutes a life that is of sanctity? Does it include the life of the woman? If so, does it include all women?


Unsafe Abortions

Such vagueness and restrictions have forced young women in distressing circumstances, to seek alternative options to a safe abortion. An article by Meenakshi Ganguly titled, ‘Reform Sri Lanka’s Draconian Abortion Law’,  outlines how in December of 2021, a 13 year old in Mullaithivu died during an illegal abortion, after she was non-consensually impregnated by a family member. Such instances are an example of how basic human rights are decimated under Sri Lanka’s abortion laws and blatantly displays the nation’s lack of concern and protection towards their women. Statistics from the Sri Lankan Journal of Medicine estimate that 700 unsafe abortions occur daily in Sri Lanka, displaying a greater need for services to be legalized, and accessible. In such prohibitive circumstances, governments leave women and girls facing unwanted pregnancies, with little to no options, leading them to seek unsafe and clandestine procedures, similar to the tragic, and avoidable fate of the young girl in Mullaithivu.



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Moreover, according to Groundview Sri Lanka, in 2023, there were 1,502 reported cases of rape involving girl children in Sri Lanka, with 167 resulting in nonconsensual pregnancy. These statistics, shared by Renuka Jayasundara, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police and head of the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children (CWB), are further evidence that the lack of viable abortion access is a threat to many women and children. 



Stigma and Stereotypes:

Additionally, the stigma surrounding abortion, and harmful stereotypes of women, further exacerbates the situation, forcing them into silent agony. Sunila Abeysaekara captures these stereotypes in her work, ‘Abortion in Sri Lanka in the Context of Women’s Rights’ (1997), where she highlights that such stereotypes proliferate through governance, and is a significant factor in the hinderance to legal abortions. According to Abeysekhara, John Amaratunga of the United National Party said, 'that allowing any form of abortion would ‘open the floodgates’ and that ‘A mere certification from a medical officer which entitles a person to resort to such an action would be made use of to continue (it) in a bigger scale'. (Abeysekhara, 1997). It is medical illiteracy and idle misinformation of such rhetoric that holds women back and creates a deliberate barrier to accessing basic health services.



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The criminalisation of abortion under the guise of un-based religious and medically disproven fallacies, leads to unsafe practices, maternal deaths, and a plethora of human rights violations for the women involved. Sri Lanka needs to review its laws and ensure that women have access to safe and legal abortion. Moreover, in the broader context of women’s rights, it is essential to understand how and why certain systems and structures afford some women privileges over others. It is imperative to ask ourselves,

“If I can do it, why can’t she?”, and if she can’t “what is stopping her?



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