On Jalan Raden Saleh, a busy street in central Jakarta, a young Indonesian woman called Sita is conducting whispered negotiations with a man in a baseball cap. He names a price - in this case, a million rupiah, or US$110 - then ushers Sita into a waiting motorised trishaw for the short trip to a nearby townhouse. There Sita is led through a grimy interior partitioned into several rooms. One is reserved for what is, in Indonesia, an illegal medical procedure that kills 7,000 women every year and maims many others: abortion. The man in the baseball cap is one of 60 or so 'brokers' on Jalan Raden Saleh who, for a commission, introduce desperate women to backstreet abortion clinics. 'Sita' is the nickname of an Indonesian journalist who is pretending to be pregnant to infiltrate this murky world. A woman who has an abortion can get four years in jail. The doctor who performed it can get up to 15 years. Yet 2.3 million abortions are performed in the country every year, many by unskilled practitioners with dirty equipment. Thousands more women survive, but with life-long disabilities. Deaths from unsafe abortions have helped make maternal mortality rates in Indonesia among the worst in the world. 'A woman dies every hour in Indonesia due to unsafe abortions,' says Ninuk Widyantoro, chairwoman of the Jakarta-based Women's Health Foundation and an outspoken advocate for decriminalising abortion. 'It's a very serious public health concern which we must find a way to solve.' The economic chaos following the 1998 collapse of the Suharto regime has made the problem worse, says Ms Ninuk. In 1989, an estimated 750,000 to one million abortions were performed annually. Within a decade, that figure had doubled. 'Our maternal death rate is among the highest in the world,' says Ms Ninuk, a diminutive, immaculately dressed woman. 'Who is responsible?' It is a rhetorical question. A male-dominated political elite is 'absent-minded' about women's health issues, says Ms Ninuk, and too fearful of offending influential Islamic leaders - who themselves duck responsibility by taking absolutist stances. All abortion can be 'categorised as murder', said Umar Syihab of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI). Ms Ninuk, a Muslim, is unswayed by religious arguments about morality when thousands of women are dying of what is, even in developing countries, a safe medical procedure. 'What kind of morality is that?' she asks. Pregnancy outside wedlock is widely regarded as shameful in Indonesia, with the woman often condemned by parents, teachers, and religious leaders. Laws allowing schools to expel pregnant students were revoked only in 2001, although in practice hundreds, possibly thousands, of schoolgirls are still forced to drop out. Consequently, many young women will go to any lengths to terminate a pregnancy. 'This is a road to death,' says Ms Ninuk. Fearing they are pregnant, some women will drink a traditional cocktail of old vinegar and the juice of young pineapples, which is believed to induce menstruation. Or they might try more hazardous concoctions containing real poison, which can kill them or deform their babies. Finally, through word of mouth, they hear about the clinics. 'Some doctors, even though they sympathise with the women, are afraid to do the procedure because it's illegal,' says Ms Ninuk. Women are therefore at the mercy of unregulated and often untrained practitioners. 'A broker will take the woman to a small, dirty clinic with no equipment - not a clinic at all,' says Ms Ninuk. 'The doctors are unskilled, too. Afterwards, if she gets an infection or starts bleeding, she will stay silent.' For every death, thousands more women are infected, injured or rendered infertile. At the dingy clinic above, a self-declared nurse assures 'Sita' that abortion 'will make you more fertile'. There is another myth that Ms Ninuk wants to explode: that only young, single women seek abortions. In a study of abortions in nine cities, Ms Ninuk and her colleagues discovered that 87 per cent were married mothers who simply couldn't afford to have more children. Many women who die from unsafe abortions leave young children behind. Explaining this, Ms Ninuk gets so fired up that she stops abruptly. 'Sorry,' she says, 'but I get so angry talking about this.' In June, 13 Muslim scholars called for the legalisation of abortion in pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or when the fetus suffered a potentially life-threatening disability. (Even this modest proposal was rejected by MUI.) The scholars, who hailed from Islamic institutions in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Makassar, also argued that a pregnancy less than 40 days can be terminated under a reinterpretation of certain Koranic verses. 'There are so many verses in the Koran that empower women,' says Ms Ninuk. 'We usually don't hear about them because the interpretation is done by men.' But, she adds, poring over scripture misses the point, which is that women should be allowed to control their own bodies. 'You have to deal with the women themselves, not the text.' In September, at a Jakarta conference on sexuality and human rights among Muslims, Asian women activists accused governments of using spurious religious justifications to interfere in women's affairs. 'Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but its interpretations of Islamic law are much more conservative than Islamic states such as Malaysia,' said Indonesian delegate Musdah Mulia. Upholding Islam while still protecting women is entirely feasible, says Ms Ninuk. She said the Islamic Republic of Iran's maternal mortality rate is a tenth of Indonesia's. While abortion was a criminal offence in Iran, the debate about liberalisation was far advanced. In Iran, 'the ulemas [Islamic scholars] care about women and want to protect them', Ms Ninuk claims. 'They want their country to be strong. Here [in Indonesia] the maternal mortality rate hasn't gone down for 20 years. Up to half of those deaths are caused by unsafe abortions.' Unicef describes maternal mortality as 'one of the least publicised denials of human rights'. In this respect, Indonesia also compares unfavourably to other Islamic or Muslim-dominated states, such as Tunisia, Turkey, and Malaysia. Ms Ninuk's message to Indonesia's religious leaders is simple: 'Educate your communities so that no woman gets an unwanted pregnancy.' That means improving sex education and family planning. The Indonesian Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology partly blames the high number of maternal deaths on popular ignorance about sexual reproduction. Sex education was introduced into high schools in 1994, but critics say the material is too moralistic, focusing more on the perils of promiscuity rather than imparting vital practical advice. 'Right now, women are just not getting the information they need,' says Ms Ninuk. Family planning needs nothing less than a revolution. The government still discourages doctors and health officials from giving contraceptives to single women. State inertia and popular ignorance is also contributing to a corollary crisis: the alarming spread of HIV/Aids. Many men believe condoms have pores which render them useless, and so don't wear them, or think HIV can be prevented by taking antibiotics before or after sex. Also in need of urgent reform are what Ms Ninuk calls 'weak and contradictory' laws on abortion. While it is banned outright under Indonesia's criminal code, coyly worded health legislation passed in 1992 permits 'certain medical procedures' - abortion - if it is required to save a woman's life. Indonesia's Dutch colonisers banned abortion in 1918. 'Now, it's legal in the Netherlands,' says Ms Ninuk. 'So, why can't we erase it from our criminal code?' She admits this is unlikely to happen. The criminal code is now being revised in process started by former justice and human rights minister, Yusril Ihza Mahendra, chairman of the Crescent Star Party, a political group that supports the introduction of sharia law in Indonesia. Revisions to the criminal code proposed by Mr Yusril include the banning of oral sex and sodomy. The outcome of that review is uncertain now that the new government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in power. For now, activists such as Ms Ninuk are pushing for new health legislation which, although primarily geared to tackling maternal mortality and HIV/Aids, will also afford women some protection from unsafe abortions. The executive powers of the recently elected president could be crucial in getting new laws passed. 'We have to keep reminding cabinet ministers and politicians, 'This is your responsibility,'' says Ms Ninuk. 'You can't just listen to religious groups and let women die.'