Turkmenistan cut our abortion rights overnight. Our ‘allies’ did nothing

By Aynabat Yaylymova, originally published here by Open Democracy

Access to abortion for Turkmen people has been shortened to five weeks. There’s been silence from those who could have stood up for our rights.

The US isn’t the only country drastically rolling back reproductive rights overnight.

In April 2022, people in Turkmenistan woke up to the news that our right to abortion care had been virtually erased, at the stroke of a pen.

The government had made public a law restricting abortion access from 12 weeks to just five weeks. (The law had in fact been passed all the way back in 2015, but without any public information, meaning it was effectively secret.)

I’ve dedicated the last 11 years of my life to providing comprehensive, free and credible information on sexual and reproductive health and rights through our organisation Saglyk which works to improve public literacy in Turkmenistan. I can assure you that discovering an unintended pregnancy so early in one’s pregnancy, let alone acting on it, is virtually impossible: most people have no idea they are pregnant in week five.

Once the five-week limit has been passed, pregnant people are left with few options. Some might seek permission for care from a special medical committee, which requires a bunch of time-consuming tests that can lead to critical delays, putting them at greater risk.

For others, finding a doctor who will provide the procedure illegally – often for extortionate prices – is the next best option. But for many people who need abortions, the amount of money needed to bribe doctors is out of reach, and the fear they will be reported to the police makes it a terrifying prospect. So, a dangerous two-tier system is created, where those with the network and resources can bypass the law to access risky, underground abortions, while the rest are stuck.

Through Saglyk.org, we have been trying to raise awareness on abortion care, sex education (including sexual orientation, sexual and reproductive health and rights) and family planning, since no such information is provided by the state. The obstacles are many. There is no comprehensive sexuality education in Turkmenistan and no data on the rate of HIV infections. Only 50% of women have access to contraception, and a recent study found that nearly 60% of women feel unable to make autonomous decisions on issues like healthcare, contraception, and giving consent to sex. 

Meanwhile, state media promotes pronatalist propaganda that encourages Turkmen women to have eight children. Macho politics, health misinformation and abortion stigma are the norms.

Where are our international allies?

The Turkmen government has been chipping away at reproductive rights since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but only a handful of its measures have received international attention. At home, this silence is to be expected: the state’s repression of civil society and outright censorship of information about reproductive rights means most people are either afraid or blindsided by government ideology. But where are our international allies?

UN agencies like the WHO, UNFPA, and UNICEF have kept silent, lending legitimacy to stifling injustice faced by people in Turkmenistan. The World Bank’s aid in the form of grants and loans to the healthcare sector in Turkmenistan tacitly supports these regressive and harmful laws and practices that significantly harm the Turkmen public.

While the EU has refused to draw up an agreement with Turkmenistan because of the government’s abysmal human rights record, it has failed to push for gender equality and the empowerment of Turkmen women and girls as promised in its Gender Action Plan.

People in Turkmenistan who need access to abortions deserve better from the powerful players that claim to stand for human rights. These agencies, the EU, and other international donors need to raise their voices for the voiceless and fearful people who cannot raise theirs.

If they don’t, what happens from here is predictable. We’ve seen hundreds of times how, in countries where abortion is restricted, the health and lives of pregnant people are put on the line. The time to act is now – but will they?

**This article originally appeared on Open Democracy on 4 May 2022. Yaylymova is an HJN member and former HJN Ambassador for 2021.