A revised section of the Rwandan law allows for abortion under certain circumstances. However, many activists describe the conditions for getting a legal abortion as a tall order. The result is that many young girls resort to illegal abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies—and are jailed when caught. President Paul Kagame recently exercised the presidential prerogative to release 50 young women jailed for assisting or having illegal abortions.
Rwanda reformed its abortion law in 2012 to permit abortion in instances of incest, rape, forced marriage, or when the pregnancy poses a health risk to the woman or fetus. However, to qualify for legal abortion, the woman needs a letter from a judge as well as a note of approval from two doctors and parental consent. In Rwanda, statistics show that there is one doctor per 17,000 people.
Getting access to one doctor is difficult to talk more of two. The majority of Rwandans are rural dwellers with limited access to hospitals and courts. Thus, young women in these areas resort to illegal abortion. Reacting to the difficulty in accessing a doctor, Sylvie Nsanga, a prominent women’s right advocate said,
“It means girls will continue to get pregnant, abort, be imprisoned, and then get pardoned by the president. There should be more conversation about the penal code that prohibits health professionals such as midwives from providing abortions.”
President Kagame also informed the cabinet on Monday, May 18, 2020, of his decision to grant ‘conditional release’ to a total of 3,596 inmates. The move is also part of measures to decongest the prison to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Last month, the government freed 1,182 people.
The staggering figures on abortion in Rwanda
According to the new law, a woman convicted of illegal abortion can face one to three years in prison and a fine of about $300. Infanticide has a sentence of life imprisonment. This law has done little to deter illegal abortions. A study by the Guttmacher Institute shows that there were approximately 60,000 induced abortions in 2009. This translates to an annual rate of 25 abortions per 1,000 women. Also, data from the institute shows that about 22% of unintended pregnancies ending abortion, 63% in unplanned births, and 15% in miscarriage.
This is not the first time that President Kagame is granting pardon to persons convicted of illegal abortions. In the second quarter of last year, he pardoned 367 persons. The decision was widely hailed by local and international organizations. Athanase Rukundo, the director of programs at Health Development Initiative, said,
“The government has proven once again that Rwanda is a cradle of women’s rights. We are very pleased by the decision taken by the president, Paul Kagame. It reflects the rights and freedoms of women and girls enshrined under the constitution of Rwanda, regional and international human rights instruments, and particularly the Maputo protocol. It is a positive step to realize the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in Rwanda.”
Breaking the cycle of illegal abortions
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has urged nations to revise their laws to prevent women from seeking unsafe and illegal abortions. Ipas is currently the sole international organization pushing for access to safe abortion and contraceptive care. To break the cycle of illegal abortions, the non-governmental agency has listed a number of recommendations to the Rwandan government which include:
- Release all women, girls and health-care professionals who are unjustly incarcerated as a result of punitive abortion laws;
- Disseminate information about the 2012 law and its requirements to women, girls, health-care providers, police and judges;
- Establish clear and streamlined procedures to facilitate obtaining judicial authorization for legal abortion;
- Invest in effective preventive measures, including comprehensive sexuality education, elimination of gender discrimination and sexual violence, and full access to all modern contraceptive methods; and
- Broaden the law to permit nurses and midwives to perform an abortion; doing so is an evidence-based approach to expanding safe access to care.
Do you think it is right to imprison women for up to three years over illegal abortion? We would like to hear your views. Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts on abortion in Africa.