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Monday, November 8, 1999 Published at 12:32 GMT

World: South Asia

Nepal's abortion scandal

Min Min Lama: At the centre of calls for reform

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts in Nepal

The women's jail in Kathmandu is a grim place.

The prisoner I had come to see, 16 year-old Min Min Lama, was immediately identifiable among the inmates who were chatting and hanging out the washing in the prison courtyard.

[ image: Nearly 100 women are jailed on abortion charges]
Nearly 100 women are jailed on abortion charges
She is after all, at 16, Nepal's youngest woman prisoner.

She looks much younger and is extremely pretty.

Taking me by the hand, Min Min Lama took me to a quiet corner of the prison courtyard to tell her story.


She explained that she was 14 when she was raped by a male relation, the brother of her step sister-in-law.

Click here to watch the full report
"He opened the door and shoved a towel in my mouth and raped me."

"Later, I told my step sister-in-law what had happened and she said she couldn't believe that her brother would do such a thing."

[ image:  ]
She said that when it was discovered that she was pregnant, her step sister-in-law wanted to protect her brother and, without Min Min Lama knowing, she gave her a drug which induced an abortion.

When the aborted foetus was found in a public toilet, the sister-in-law called the police.

Abortion is illegal in Nepal and the teenager was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

This tiny and fragile girl has become a symbol for those campaigning in Nepal to change the abortion laws.

Nearly 100 women, or a fifth of the female prisoners in Nepal are serving time on abortion-related charges and many of them, like Min Min Lama, have been raped by a male relation.

[ image: Sue Lloyd-Roberts on her way to the village]
Sue Lloyd-Roberts on her way to the village
What makes Min Min Lama's case extra poignant is that she claims she wasn't responsible for the abortion and she asked me to go and find the woman who was, the sister in law..

It was a seven-hour journey from Kathmandu, five of them on foot, to reach Min Min Lama's home and on the way I learned more about her family and the plight of women in Nepal.

Finding the family

There was the local hospital which I stumbled on en route, nearly falling over a woman who was lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the entrance hall awaiting medical attention.

She too had been the victim of an amateur abortionist.

[ image: A victim of an amateur abortion]
A victim of an amateur abortion
A doctor told me that he deals with such cases all the time - women with punctured uteruses and even intestines after traditional birth attendants use whatever sharp object comes to hand, bamboo sticks and even shards of glass, to get rid of the foetus which would otherwise cause the family shame.

I resumed my trek to Min Min Lama's home.

[ image: Min Min Lama's father: Could do nothing to help]
Min Min Lama's father: Could do nothing to help
None of Min Min Lama's full brothers and sisters were there and I learned that after Min Min Lama's mother had died, her father had remarried and the new wife had driven Min Min Lama and her two brothers from the family home.

Furthermore, the new family were afraid that under Nepali property laws, Min Min Lama might inherit some of her mother's estate and so it might be convenient for Min Min Lama to be behind bars.

Min Min Lama's father and stepmother assured me that they loved Min Min Lama but could do nothing to help her as they had no money.

Sent away

As for my search for the step sister-in-law, they said she wasn't there and sent me away.

But I returned to the house at midnight and, as I suspected, the sister-in-law was there.

The family was humiliated and mortified.

[ image: Sister-in-law: Admitted her guilt]
Sister-in-law: Admitted her guilt
The entire village was awake by now and the neighbours who had gathered around shouted at the woman that she had been found out and that she must now tell the truth.

The step sister-in-law admitted to giving Min Min Lama the poison which had caused the abortion and to lying to the police about Min Min Lama's age so that, although she was still a minor, she would be imprisoned.

"OK, I am guilty. I feel guilty, but what good will that do now?", she said.

Good news

Min Min Lama's lawyers had been campaigning for her case to be reviewed and they said that the fact that the BBC was in town to film the story and that we had uncovered vital, new testimony helped.

[ image:  ]
Before leaving Kathmandu. I paid a final call on Min Min Lama with the news that her sentence might be reduced.

She was beaming from ear to ear as I waved good bye to her through the prison bars.

Two weeks later, Min Min Lama was released.

The plight of the teenager has focused attention on the issue, and might prove the catalyst for change.

There are, however, 99 women facing similar charges who still languish in prison in Nepal today.

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