By Nishan Kafle
Nepal has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world thanks to the multitudes of missionary organizations — both Nepali and international — operating in every nook and cranny of the country. While proselytizing isn’t problematic in and of itself, Christian missionaries in Nepal are also bringing their anti-LGBT and pro-life worldview to their work. This is especially pernicious in a country where patriarchy is dominant and a new law guaranteeing safe and legal abortion services is in desperate need of protection.
Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country, set the standard in women’s health in Asia by legalizing abortion in 2002 when the 11th amendment bill became law. Before 2002, women in Nepal receiving abortions were subject to punitive punishment by the government and had to endure social ostracism. But even after abortion was legalized, many Nepali women, fearing social stigma, preferred to have their abortion done surreptitiously by untrained maids rather than going to state-run health clinics. Others decided not to get an abortion altogether, owing to lack of awareness, inaccessibility to clinics in remote areas and, and, in a recent development, propaganda from anti-abortion missionaries.
Missionaries' “pro-life” ideology is exacerbating the already precarious state of Nepali women’s healthcare. This problem is especially pronounced in remote areas where church groups are most active and the national health system is out of reach. Missionaries and church groups specifically target minorities and women from disadvantaged backgrounds since they feel disillusioned by the state’s treatment of them, making it easier for the missionaries to fill the vacuum as a caregiver.
Nepali women’s right to choose was hard-won. The country went through a decade-long armed civil war that weaned Nepal away from the strongman rule of a monarchy to a fledgling democracy. Thousands of lives were lost and many are still missing — all for basic human rights. Nepal’s abortion policies are seen by many as a best practice, not just in South Asia where women still face extreme discrimination, but also in the wider world. Faith-based organizations in Nepal are threatening to backtrack on the little progress Nepal has made in women’s health so far.
This assault on women’s rights is coming not just from faith-based organizations, however. It has recently been certified by the highest authority of the United States — President Donald Trump. Trump became president partly because of the powerful backing of evangelical and Christian groups, and he is delivering on this mandate by curtailing American funding for NGOs that provide abortion counseling or referrals — let alone services.
For a country like Nepal, which receives substantial funding from foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for social development, President Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule has also had devastating effects on women’s health and family planning. The policy, which restricts foreign NGOs who receive certain US funds from providing, referring, or advocating for abortion, used to apply only to NGOs receiving US family planning assistance. Under Trump, the policy expanded to apply to NGOs receiving nearly any US global health assistance funds. For the already impoverished women in remote districts of Nepal, this policy has made accessing safe abortion care even more difficult.
Faith-based organizations, boosted by the Trump administration’s backing, have ramped up their presence in the 11 districts of Nepal where the Global Gag Rule forced the closure of several family planning clinics. Worse, faith-based organizations often conflate basic women’s healthcare with abortion, exacerbating the social stigma of abortion. By spreading ideas against reproductive rights, these organizations are reinforcing Nepal’s social hierarchy that treats women — especially minority, disadvantaged, and queer women — as inferior.
Religious people of conscience would do well to understand that restricting abortion only serves to unnecessarily put the lives of women they’re trying to help at risk, as these policies ultimately do not decrease the number of abortions.
Upwards of 300,000 abortions were performed in Nepal in 2014, of which, a staggering 58 percent were performed by unlicensed personnel. This statistic is extremely disheartening for a country that has 1400 authorized abortion clinics in all 77 districts of Nepal. This cannot simply be due to rugged terrain or lack of adequate abortion providers (there are 18.18 authorized abortion clinics for every district). Some of the blame should be on religious groups who have spread falsehoods about reproductive rights in the name of “life,” deterring women from visiting sanitary, authorized clinics run by medical professionals lest they risk societal ostracization.
Amidst all this bleakness, there is a glimmer of hope. Nepal has made remarkable progress on women’s health in the last decade. The maternal mortality rate has decreased precipitously: from 553 in 1990 to 186 in 2017 (for every 100,000 live births). The contraceptive usage rate among women aged 15-49 has also increased from 24.1 percent in 1992 to 52.6 percent in 2016. And the percentage of women receiving prenatal care has risen from 15.4 percent in 1991 to 83.6 percent in 2016. All of this is due to the Nepal government’s newly-humane approach to women’s healthcare. But these monumental gains could be short-lived if Nepal doesn’t tackle the exigent threat of disinformation spread by people who act in the name of religion.