The number of abortions in Turkmenistan has not decreased despite a recently enforced ban, as many women now pay bribes to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, women and doctors say.
Just days after the authoritarian country’s new president -- Serdar Berdymukhammedov -- succeeded his father and took power in March, the government unveiled a law that effectively bans abortion after five weeks of pregnancy, except if it poses serious health risks to the mother or child.
The law -- which was originally adopted in 2015 but wasn't ever made public or enforced -- caught everyone by surprise, according to the Saglyk (Health) website run by Turkmen activists and medics abroad.
Women have been barred from the front seats of vehicles. Authorities have banned women from wearing heavy makeup and using eyelash extensions or fake nails. Breast implants and lip augmentation have also been banned.
The law shortens the period during which women are allowed to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without health reasons from 12 weeks to five weeks.
A Turkmen doctor who specializes in reproductive health issues slammed the law, saying most women don’t even know they’re pregnant in the first five weeks.
The law allows exemptions for certain health issues, but it stipulates that such an exemption can only be granted by a special medical commission after undergoing a number of medical tests, ultimately delaying abortion and increasing health risks for the mother.
Citing several patients and medical sources, RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan say the ban has paved the way for more corruption in women’s clinics and hospitals.
The sources said women who want to end a pregnancy pay bribes to obstetricians, who falsely register the patient’s visit as a preventative checkup or consultation.
The patient officially pays a consultation fee and then “separately provides cash bribes for an abortion,” they added.
In Turkmenistan, where corruption is rife in almost all spheres, people say “every problem can be resolved with money,” a source said.
The amount of the bribe for an abortion ranges between $100 and $500 depending on how advanced the pregnancy is, medical sources in the city of Mary said, adding that it’s cheaper when the patient approaches a doctor in the early months.
It also varies in different cities and regions. At a women’s health center in Lebap Province, one source said patients pay up to $340 in bribes for an abortion in the later stages of pregnancy.
Limited Access To Contraceptives
The ban on abortion comes as a significant number of reproductive-age women in Turkmenistan don’t have access to contraceptives, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), which aims to improve reproductive and maternal health worldwide.
According to the UNPFA, there are still “about 160,000 women [in Turkmenistan] aged 15-49 who would like to prevent or delay their pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives.”
The reasons are different for each woman and range from a lack of information about services to a lack of support from their parents, husband, or communities, as well as the ability to decide or purchase contraceptives by themselves, the agency said.
In Turkmenistan's conservative society, nearly 60 percent of women aren’t able to independently decide on these fundamental issues -- contraceptives and abortions -- that affects their lives and health.
Abortion is frowned upon by many older Turkmen, but the younger generation has a more liberal view toward it. Turkmen usually have large families, but younger, urban Turkmen are having fewer children, with some blaming shrinking family sizes on economic hardship.
Turkmenistan’s virtual ban on abortions has gone largely unnoticed by the media, as it was revealed at the same time as many other restrictions affecting women’s lives.
Women have been barred from the front seats of vehicles in everything from private cars to public transport. Police across the country have stopped and fined drivers who defied the ban, even if the female passenger was a family member.
Authorities have also banned women from wearing heavy makeup and using eyelash extensions or fake nails. Breast implants and lip augmentation have also been banned, along with eyebrow tinting -- something that became popular among Turkmen women in recent years.
Additionally, working women are forced to submit a written pledge to management that they won't wear tight-fitting clothes or use heavy makeup.
The bans came without any official announcement or explanation from the government. Women found out about the measures from their employers or from police, who began enforcing the ban in late March and early April.