By Yvonne Singh in Kathmandu
Women who have abortion in Nepal are still stigmatised (Photos: Jenny Matthews)
Every day Shanti Shresta thanks God that she is free. "I thought I was going to rot in jail," she says. "I never thought that I would be released."
Four years ago Shanti was arrested and thrown into prison after the authorities accused her of having an abortion.
At the time this was a crime punishable in this Hindu kingdom with a life prison sentence.
Her ordeal began four months into her fourth pregnancy.
One fateful afternoon, feeling sick and dizzy, she swallowed some paracetamol tablets to cure a nagging migraine.
"I knew instinctively that I was miscarrying, and I had lost my baby," she recalls. "My underclothes were drenched in blood."
With her children at school and her husband at work, Shanti turned to the landlady of her rented house in Kathmandu for help.
The woman took her to hospital but reported the death of the baby to the police, something that she was legally obliged to do as the owner of the property.
Many women were sent to prison and some may remain there
Because Shanti's pregnancy was so far advanced, the authorities suspected she had had an abortion.
She was arrested while recovering in hospital and four armed police stood guard by her bed. "I was so sick there was no reason for them to guard me, I could not run anywhere," she said.
Her husband took care of the couple's two teenage daughters.
But Shanti requested that her five-year-old son stay with her so that her husband did not have to give up work as a taxi driver.
After hospital, she was transferred to a jail in the Dillibazaar district of the capital, Kathmandu, trial. Her son went with her.
The overcrowded conditions in this small prison on the outskirts of Kathmandu, which is meant to house 32 women but crams more than 60 into one open-plan concrete cell, was too much for Shanti.
Her request for a transfer to Kathmandu Central Jail was granted, and six months later she stood trial accused of having an abortion.
By this time the psychological stress had taken its toll. She would find herself crying for no reason and suffering from hypertension.
Efforts are now being taken to rehabilitate the women
Her husband had paid a lawyer around $20 (1500 Nepalese Rupees) to defend her, but unable to read or write she found it difficult to understand the proceedings.
"I didn't know what was going on, I was very confused. They said I had an abortion. The police made me sign a piece of paper. I did not know it was a confession."
Shanti was sentenced to 20 years in jail. It was then that both she and her husband made the decision to place their youngest child in a hostel, as she was finding it difficult to cope looking after her son in jail.
She would often have to forsake meals in order to feed her child because in prison female prisoners have to share their rations - a cup of rice a day - with any accompanied children.
Like most prisoners, Shanti depended on donations from her family, her husband would bring toiletries and sometimes money once a week.
"I was on one side and my family was on the other, it was very hard," she said.
Nepal legalised abortion in September 2002 after pressure from human rights organisations and the country's Family Planning Association.
Under current law, women can have an abortion within 12 weeks of pregnancy, 18 weeks if a woman is pregnant because of rape or incest, or at any time if it is believed that the pregnancy will affect her health and that of her unborn child.
Pinky Shah, Programme Officer from the Rural Women's Development and Unity Centre (RUWDUC) says that the assumption was that as soon as the law had been passed, women like Shanti Shresta would be set free.
She estimates there were nearly 60 women in situations like Shanti Shresta's and that almost half of them are still in jail.
Now King Gyanendra has announced an amnesty for 12 women in jail for having abortions.
"We intended to rehabilitate these women back into the community. We had money set aside for a shelter, counselling provision and vocational training for those women."
Shanti Shresta ended up spending four months in a hostel in Kathmandu, where she received counselling, as well as acquiring skills such as literacy, accounting and tailoring in order to set up her own business.
Because of the social stigma associated with being jailed for abortion, her family had to move out of the neighbourhood she lived in Kathmandu.
In the past two months, she has returned to her husband and now runs a small shop near the city selling homemade cakes and savouries.
But she is still deeply traumatised - so much so that she has not yet been able to find the hostel where her son is.
"This incident took away precious time with my son. I would give anything to see him again and to make sure that he is okay," she says