Rwanda is about to release 50 women who were jailed for having abortions after a personal pardon issued by the country’s president, Paul Kagame.
Human rights activists welcomed the pending release of the women, six of whom had been given life sentences – the highest penalty available to the courts – two serving 25 years and the other terms ranging from 12 months to 20 years.
“It is a positive achievement,” said Tom Mulisa, executive director for the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD).
Dr Agnes Odhiambo of Human Rights Watch in Kenya declared that they should never have been jailed. “While this is a good move, women and girls should never, in the first place, be imprisoned for exercising their reproductive rights. The government of Rwanda should remove punitive measures for women who undergo abortions.”
Rwanda revised its penal code recently in 2018, allowing abortion strictly only for cases of minors, rape, forced marriage, incest and instances where the pregnancy poses a health risk.
Odhiambo said that Rwanda with this law sends the wrong message: that women have to undergo certain abuses for them to exercise their reproductive rights, how is this possible?
Even where termination is allowed, it must be carried out by a doctor, an issue in a country where medical professionals are in short supply.
“The condition that allows only a ‘recognised medical doctor’ to perform abortions threatens to make safe abortions almost impossible for many women and girls to access, particularly those who are poor, illiterate and from rural areas,” she clarified. “Studies have shown that trained nurses and midwives are as capable as doctors in providing safe abortion care.”
Figures from 2016 by Rwanda Medical and Dental Council show the country has only one doctor per 10,055 people, and one midwife for every 4,064 women aged 15 to 49.
Dr Afrodis Kagaba, the executive director of Health Integrated Development, explained that the more difficult abortion was to access, the more people are pushed towards unsafe solutions.
“Nurses and midwives can safely conduct abortion operations as they normally help more than 80% of women to give birth. Nothing can stop a woman who has decided to abort. The law is good, but as we know, around 40% of hospitals are owned by religious bodies, and they cannot offer the service due to their beliefs. Also, healthcare providers are yet to understand the law, they require evidence that is no longer necessary,” he pointed out.
Unfortunately, the use of law enforcement in arresting women means they are less likely to seek medical help after an unsafe abortion.
“In some cases, girls or women can be handcuffed or arrested and this brings fear in other women. Therefore, doctors lack enough evidence, it is not easy for a girl or a woman to prove that she has been raped,” said Dr Frank Habineza, a member of parliament for the Democratic Green party of Rwanda.
Mulisa said that more than the narrow-specified circumstances permitting abortion should legally be supported.
As defined by the World Health Organization, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Many people do not understand what it means. Many reasons can affect social wellbeing”.
A study conducted in 2015 by reproductive rights group Ipas and GLIHD, found that legal barriers and cultural and religious stigma make it nearly impossible for women to get a safe, legal abortion in Rwanda, leaving the vast majority forced to resort to unsafe procedures that break the law.
The Guttmacher Institute reports in 2013, estimated that approximately 60,000 abortions occur in Rwanda each year and 22% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.
The latest figures available to the world media show there were 227 women jailed for abortion in 2014. But unfortunately, we do not know exactly how many remain in prison.