Pretending to be a helpless young man desperate to procure an abortion for his 17-year-old girlfriend, ALFRED OLUFEMI, uncovers places inside Lagos markets where traditional medicine sellers profit from facilitating unsafe abortion for teenagers. Results of laboratory tests carried out on the herbal roots and other substances procured from the markets, reveal high levels of dangerous compounds capable of causing grievous health complications and incapacitating an individual for life
Annually, millions of adolescent girls court untimely deaths through unsafe abortion procedures. A few of them who escape death by a whisker either go on to develop serious health complications or lifelong trauma.
Abortion, like sex, is not often discussed in the public spheres and is seen as sacrilegious due to its variance with societal norms and religious beliefs.
Teenage pregnancy is a nightmare and a huge worry for every concerned parent.
For a teenage girl caught in the web, which is usually a life-altering experience, the greatest danger lies in trying to procure abortion illegally, especially from quacks because they are presumed to be quick with the medical procedure, secretive and affordable.
Annually, thousands of clandestine abortions are reportedly carried out by unskilled providers, often with dire consequences for the lives and health of the women involved.
A 2018 report by the Department of Radiography, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, disclosed that an estimated 610, 000 induced abortions occur annually in Nigeria, accounting for approximately 40 per cent of maternal deaths.
It stated that several studies on abortion morbidity and mortality have reported that teenagers constitute the majority of victims of illegal or unsafe abortion.
The report further stated that unsafe abortion remained one of the most neglected sexual and reproductive health problems faced by developing countries.
According to a joint study carried out by the Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria and the Nigeria Ministry of Health, unsafe abortion kills 20,000 women annually while half of the figures are teenagers below the age of 19.
World of Lagos herbal abortionists
Abortion in Nigeria is illegal and carries a heavy jail sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment unless performed to save the life of the woman.
Section 230 of the Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, explicitly spelt out punitive measures for anyone that supplies drugs or instruments to procure abortion.
It stated, “Any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person anything whatever, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with child, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.”
Even though ingestion of herbal infusions with abortive intent is reportedly widespread and not specific to states or geo-political zones, our correspondent went undercover and within two months, toured markets known as hubs of traditional medicine in Lagos, to find out if they facilitate unsafe abortions and how they do it.
Having identified those of particular interest, he headed for the densely populated Mushin market, a known depot for herbal medicine practitioners.
On this day, a Friday, the whole place was messy and flooded following a downpour. The atmosphere oozed with stench and dirt overflowed from saturated drainage lining the market streets.
The filthy environment seemed normal to the traditional medicine traders, usually referred to in Yoruba as ‘Alagbo,’ as they plied their trade unbothered in an obscured part of the market.
Their stalls, which were no different from the grimy environment, had every available space clustered with dried leaves, roots and bark of trees.
Apart from the sale of herbs for various cocktails, that section of the market, PUNCH Investigations learnt is also a go-to area to procure live or preserved animal parts for fetish purposes.
It was amid the chaos characterising the market that our correspondent spotted Iya Quadri, a light-skinned woman that appeared to be in her 40s.
She was in the middle of a heated argument with a young man when our correspondent approached her.
“Good afternoon ma, I want to get some herbs,” our correspondent said in a hushed tone.
Iya Quadri, who quietly lowered herself onto a bench, asked what the herbs were meant for. She also immediately dismissed the young man she was with, with a quick, mean look. “My 17-year-old girlfriend is eight weeks pregnant. I want to terminate it,” our correspondent further said, appearing to be fidgety.
Surprisingly, Iya Quadri did not seem surprised by the odd request, instead, she asked if the pregnancy was exactly eight weeks old, to which our correspondent said yes.
“The herbs you need will cost N5, 000. I will prepare two different types for her to drink in the morning, afternoon and night. They will flush it (pregnancy) out,” she said confidently.
Iya Quadri further explained that the herbal cocktails will come in two forms – one cooked with water and the other, soaked in dry gin.
She stated that within three to seven days, the herbal cocktails will force out the pregnancy, which she noted was still in its formative stage.
“If her body system is good and responsive, the pregnancy will be aborted within three days. If not, it may take up to a week,” Iya Quadri assured.
On the type of gin that can be used to constitute the herbs, the woman explained that some brands are more effective than others, and specifically warned against buying the locally brewed one. “You will have to buy the gin yourself. You can get dry gin. The local one is not potent. We need to use the one that is sharp,” she advised sternly.
Since the visit to the market was made on a Friday, our correspondent offered to come for the herbal cocktails on Monday morning, by which time they would be ready.
A part payment of N3, 000 was made and the balance of N2, 000, it was agreed, would be brought on the collection day.
Having solidified their agreement, the woman gave our correspondent her mobile for further communications.
The WHO on unsafe abortion
Unsafe abortion is defined by the World Health Organisation as a procedure for terminating an unwanted pregnancy, either by unskilled persons or in an environment that defy medical standards, or both.
The WHO estimates that around 73 million pregnancies are terminated across the globe yearly.
The worrying dimension to this is that 5.6 million out of the number occur among teenage girls, while 3.9 million are noted to be done through unsafe methods, the global health body stated.
According to the 2022 State of the World Population Report by the United Nations Population Fund, between 2015 and 2019, about 121 million pregnancies were recorded annually, which amounted to 48 per cent of all unintended pregnancies.
The report titled, ‘Seeing the Unseen: The Case for Action in the Neglected Crisis of Unintended Pregnancy,’ further noted that 61 per cent of the unintended pregnancies ended in induced abortion. The UNFPA report noted that though the rate of unintended pregnancies declined, the global abortion rate is virtually unchanged.
“Where these abortions are unsafe, women risk short- and long-term morbidity and even death,” the report added.
Staggering statistics of Lagos’ teenage abortions
A curious mind would want to know why abortion is rampant among teenagers despite the alarmingly high mortality and attendant risks.
A study carried out in Lagos State might have answered this. In 2012, 100 girls were randomly selected from the Ojo Local Government Area of the state to participate in a study undertaken by researchers from the Osun State University, Lagos State University and the University of Ibadan.
“Pregnant adolescent girls have a multiplicity of reasons for inducing abortion as 29% of the respondents adduced avoidance of stigma of being accidental mothers; 33% attributed it to avoidance of economic burden; 10% advanced freedom to work as the reason for inducing abortion; 17% ascribed it to the freedom to enjoy themselves; and 11% insisted that it was due to their desire to maintain their girlhood,” the study stated.
Dangerous herbal cocktails
Speaking on the study, a sexual and reproductive health rights advocate, Pelumi Aleshinloye-King, noted that high prevalence of teenage pregnancy was disturbing, adding that it was more disheartening that herbal cocktails were being used by presumably naïve teenagers to abort pregnancies.
“Some years ago, I was part of a research team that persuaded teenagers to speak on the things that they use to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Some of them said, ‘We mix alum, limestone, and when we drink it, we will bleed’,” she added.
In a report by Deutsche Welle, one of Germany’s international media outlets, it was noted that women may try to induce abortion by eating herbs, brewing herbal teas, applying herbs vaginally or injecting its extracts, but that experts have warned that they can be potentially dangerous.
“I must warn all women against using plant-based products to induce abortions because their effects are unpredictable,” noted Roland Seifert of the Institute of Pharmacology, Medical University of Hannover.
Quoting a study by the Oriental Republic of Uruguay University, DW noted that few studies examined the efficacy of herbs and other plants for inducing abortions, adding that one reason for this stems from the fact that women wishing to terminate pregnancies have been found to mix herbs, varying the quantity and timing of their intake, and sometimes undertaking self-inflicted instrumental manipulations as well.
It stated that while the ingestion of herbs was found to sometimes induce abortions, it has a “risk of severe morbidity and mortality.”
The Uruguay study, which examined 86 cases of self-induced abortions using herbs, found out that some of the women suffered multiple organ failures leading to death. Others were noted to have sustained liver and blood disorders.
Similarly, an 80’s study by the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, discovered that individuals attempting an abortion using herbal remedies may consume more of such products if the desired effect is not achieved, thereby increasing the risk of poisoning. It noted that this could harm the health of a fetus if abortion is unsuccessful.
This was confirmed by Larissa Leibrock-Plehn, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of herbal abortifacients.
“There can be no safe abortion using plant-based products. Attempting to do so will either prove ineffective, or dangerous, depending on the dose,” she warned.
A business not exclusively for women
Although it is widely believed that women dominate the traditional medicine trade, especially in Lagos markets, our correspondent, however, noticed that men were not left out and actually appeared to be more versed in the business.
One of such maestros is Animashaun Usman, who shares a small space with a female cosmetics seller.
The man, who donned a traditional outfit, showed quick interest when approached by our correspondent.
When informed about the fictitious eight weeks pregnancy, Usman, who had a bowl of pap (liquid corn meal) in his hand, instantly gulped the content, rinsed and dropped the container in a corner.
He then beckoned on our correspondent to come closer, so that they could discuss in hushed tones.
Like Iya Quadri, Usman’s herbal cocktails, it turned out, would also come in cooked and alcohol-based forms.
“It will flush it out of her system in one week. She will pass it out like faeces, I can assure you. After one week of using it, she can go and confirm if it’s still there at the hospital. This is not my first time,” he boasted.
After charging N5, 000 for the herbs, he gave out his bank details for onward payment.
As soon as Usman confirmed that the transaction was successful, he told our correspondent to come back on Monday for collection.
Unsafe abortions sprawl beyond Mushin market
From Mushin, our correspondent boarded a bus to Yaba market.
After inquiring from a secondhand clothes seller where he could buy herbs, he was pointed in the direction of the railway track.
It took less than five minutes to locate an elderly woman known simply as Iya Alagbo, where she displayed her goods at a spot along the stretch of the railway.
She looked calm amid the hustling and bustling of the market.
After exchanging pleasantries, our correspondent went on to regale her with the same tale of abortive intent.
Without hesitation, the elderly woman said the herbs would cost N1, 500. After asking some questions for clarification, Iya Alagbo swung into action and gathered the needed herbs into a plastic basket.
She then brought out a plastic bottle from an old sack and a rusted small machete from the back of a basket and proceeded to chop the herbs into tiny pieces on a wood stump.
Although our correspondent could not identify the bark of trees and other plants, which the elderly woman later meticulously stuffed into the plastic bottle, some items such as potash (Kaun in Yoruba) and Christmas melon were recognisable.
To be sure Iya Alagbo knew what she was doing and that she understood the request, our correspondent asked her again if the herbs would not harm his 17-year-old girlfriend.
“Nothing will happen to her. Children of nowadays..,” she hissed without completing the sentence.
The elderly woman then handed the bottled roots to our correspondent and specifically instructed him to pour dry gin inside the bottle and allow it to soak for 24 hours, before giving it to his girlfriend in the morning and at night for seven days.
In addition, Iya Alagbo said she should take a hot black tea infusion, without milk or sugar after ingesting the herbal cocktail. The combination, she stressed, would facilitate the expulsion of the foetus within seven days.
Oyingbo market inclusive
Oyingbo market, one of the oldest and busiest markets in Ebute Metta is known as the hub of dried fish, crayfish and other soup condiments.
Oddly, sandwiched between two dried fish sellers inside the market is Iya Damilola, who boldly displayed her wares that include dangling calabashes, tree barks and roots for sale.
Our correspondent initially met with the woman’s son, Damilola, as he tidied the shop entrance and he immediately called his mother’s attention after hearing what our correspondent wanted.
As the woman stepped out of the shop, she scrutinised our correspondent and asked a barrage of questions in quick succession.
At the point when our correspondent thought that the herb seller would turn down the request, she agreed to prepare the abortion potion.
As it appeared, for her, it was all about the money.
“It is already late. You will come back for it,” she said after charging a non-negotiable fee of N5, 000, which she insisted must be fully paid immediately.
The counselling Oshodi herb seller
On his way home, our correspondent stopped at Oshodi market, where he met another herb seller that vehemently declined to help.
The woman, who sat outside her shop located in one of the complexes, was busy separating jute leaves (Ewedu) from stalks.
Upon hearing our correspondent’s request, she took a deep breath and looked up with a worried expression.
“I have children too. I am sorry, I can’t help you,” she said, shaking her head. The woman, however, turned a counsellor and pointed out the many ills of abortion.
She advised our correspondent to inform the parent of his girlfriend about the pregnancy, noting that no sane parent would want their daughter to go through the torturous process of an abortion.
“Even if you both insist on terminating the pregnancy, I will advise you to take her to the hospital,” she added.
Harvest of herbal concoctions
On Monday when our correspondent went to collect the herbs, he was faced with hordes of prescriptions, among them a contradictory one.
Iya Quadri’s place was the first pick-up point. Apart from the herbs meant to be boiled and immersed in gin respectively, our correspondent was given an additional polythene bag containing a powdery substance.
“She should mix this powder with lime tonight and drink it once,” she instructed.
Pointing to the gin-based roots, the woman said, “By the time she wakes up early in the morning, she should drink this, or late at night. She should shake it before drinking. Boil the other one tonight in a big pot and let her drink it early in the morning.”
Warning on likely side effects that might arise, Iya Quadri said the young lady must stay indoors because her stomach would be greatly unsettled.
She added, “She should lie down for a while because it contains alcohol. It won’t do her any harm. It can only cause stomach ache, but it will flush the dirt in her stomach. She doesn’t need to go for any lab test because the boiled one will flush the pregnancy out permanently.’’
Herb seller cum physician
As soon as Usman saw our correspondent coming, his face lit up with a smile.
He did not waste time in handing over a polythene bag filled with chunks of herbs and went on to reel out prescriptions, which included that of an unorthodox medication (not mentioned for safety reasons), meant to be taken alongside all the herbs.
“She can take the capsule daily. By the time she has used six, she will be fine,” he said.
When Usman saw the worried expression on the face of his customer, he quickly interjected, “It is only this one that contains alcohol that may weaken her. That is the reason why she should take the capsule.”
In a manner meant to reinforce confidence, he opened the bottle containing the herbs constituted with gin and took a sip.
At Iya Damilola’s stall in Oyingbo market, our correspondent was cautioned against having further unprotected sex with his teenage girlfriend before being handed over a bottle containing herbs.
“You should have used a condom since she was a teenager. After this one (abortion), ensure that you use protection,” she advised.
Explaining how her prescription works, the woman said, “It (pregnancy) will come like normal menstrual flow. If it comes out well, you don’t need to visit the hospital for evacuation.” ,
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