Abortion in Rwanda: A more compassionate approach is necessary

What kind of future does such a young mother have? What future does the child she bears have? Not a great one in my opinion

What kind of future does such a young mother have? What future does the child she bears have? Not a great one in my opinion

A recent report on abortion in this country, produced by Ipas (an American NGO) with the assistance of the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development and ARBEF, makes for extremely sober reading. According to the report ‘When abortion becomes a crime: Rwanda’, up to 29 percent of female inmates in our correctional system are incarcerated because of abortion-related infractions.

Here are some of the statistics and findings that the report outlines and that I feel must be mulled over.

In Karubanda prison, 56 out of 217 of women in jail are in for abortion charges (25.8%). In Nsinda prison, 68 out of 234 women are jailed for abortion (29%). In Kigali Central Prison (known colloquially as 1930), the figures are 87 out 356 (24.4%); in Nyamagabe prison, the figure is 45 out of 212 (21.2%) and in Ruhengeri prison, 57 out of 285 (20%) of women are in jail for abortion charges.

That is unbelievable. We have hundreds of different crimes in our penal code that can land one in jail, so the mere fact that ONE type of infraction has such a high number of ‘victims’ should worry us all.

I’m not a trained statistician, but in my layman’s view, something simply isn’t right here. Too many women are falling into this situation (unplanned pregnancy and abortion) despite abortion’s riskiness, social stigma and legal repercussions.

Two things bothered me as I continued past the incarceration statistics. Firstly how young some of the imprisoned women were (some as young as 18 years of age: meaning that they were unable to consent to sexual intercourse i.e they were raped) and secondly, how many actually thought that they were allowed to abort following amendment of the penal code in June 2012.

Unlike the old article banning abortion unless the mother’s health was at risk, article 162 allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, forced marriage or risk to the health of the mother.

The problem is, to get a legal abortion, one needs a certification from a competent court that the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or forced marriage. For the medical exception, a woman must get the permission from two doctors, with one making a written report in three copies.

All those procedures seem reasonable, except they are not. What are the chances that a 19-year old in Gatsibo District will have the money to hire a lawyer to help her navigate the labyrinth that is our legal system? Unless they come from a well-to-do family, that is simply not going to happen. And how many Centre de Sante’s actually have one doctor working in them, never mind TWO?

I get it. I understand that the many people, including our lawmakers, believe that the life of the unborn child should be protected at, almost, all costs. However, I must ask, who is defending the mothers? Who is defending the vulnerable young women who simply haven’t understood the new law? Who is defending someone like 20-year old Therese?

She was arrested after she was brought hemorrhaging to a hospital. She had taken pills to terminate a four-month pregnancy. She was 18 years old and in junior high school. Therese was arrested in June 2013, and the following month the Nyamirambo Primary Court sentenced her to six months in prison. She appealed and lost her case. The man who made Therese pregnant abandoned her when she told him and she has not seen him since.

Below is a record of her story in her own words.

 I told him I am pregnant. He told me he is married to another woman. I asked him how he thinks I can survive when I even don’t have parents. I asked him how he would help me, how will I survive, yet this is your child? He told me, ‘Find out where to take that pregnancy; whether you give birth or not, I won’t help you with anything”.

“I sought advice from some people. Life had changed. I said, ‘I don’t have a mum to look after my child.’ Some people told me to abort, that there is a law in favor of abortion, nothing will happen to me”.

What I see from her story is an issue of a lack of empowerment and many deficiencies in overall sexual education. All of which isn’t her fault. It is our fault for not giving her the right education to make proper sexual decisions. It is our fault for not properly publicising the legal remedies for someone in her position. And it is certainly our fault for making it close to impossible for poor, uneducated women to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

So, here is the question I must leave to you, the reader. Do you think that the laws we have are workable and realistic for the country we live in? Do you think that there is a more compassionate way forward? Or are you happy with the status quo?

The New Times published the blog previously

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If we are going to punish lawyers for doing a shoddy job, no one should be safe

Lawyers sign documents after swearing in as new members of the Rwanda Bar Association.

Lawyers sign documents after swearing in as new members of the Rwanda Bar Association.

No one likes lawyers. They are sneaky, long-winded and have an overly inflated sense of self-worth. There is a reason some say that the word ‘lawyers’ sounds awfully like ‘liars’. However, I refuse to accept such prejudice; and its not because I happened to go to law school. I think, like in every profession, there good legal practitioners and there are some bad apples. So, singling them out for special attention is, in my opinion, a bad idea.

On Monday, I was shocked to learn that public sector lawyers and legal advisors would soon be held responsible for any government financial loss due to bad legal advice they give.

Speaking in a meeting that brought together legal advisors from different public institutions, the Minister of Justice Johnston Busingye said, “This is a new effort to enforce a code of conduct so that you stop making mistakes that have led government to lose billions of francs in litigations. Whoever commits such knowingly will be held accountable”.

Now, I noticed that he didn’t say that the lawyers would be held responsible for any loss, just losses that occur because of gross negligence. In law, as in medicine, the only obligation that a lawyer has is to try his/her best whether or not they are successful (or, as lawyers call it, the obligation of best efforts and not the obligation of results).

I applaud the spirit of the move but I worry about its practical application. For example, who will be the judge of whether a lawyer provided bad advice on purpose or not? Will it be a court or some person in the justice ministry? How will the Ministry be able to prove beyond doubt that a lawyer messed up knowingly and not merely mistakenly?

Lets say that the lawyer is found to have been negligent in his/her duties and the loss to the government goes up to tens of millions of francs. How will a government-salaried lawyer pay back such an amount? Will they be imprisoned? On what charge specifically? And for how long? Until they pay back the money they lost? If they can’t (or wont) will they stay in jail indefinitely?

And if it’s simply a matter of fighting corruption, then why does there need to be a specific rule that only concerns state lawyers? Isn’t the Penal Code, which punishes corruption, stringent enough? And if it is, then why add anything more? And if it isn’t, then why not amend the Penal Code in order to make it even tougher on corruption than it already is?

I have no sympathy for the corrupt and the incompetent. None whatsoever. So don’t think, for one second, that I’m saying that the government should lose billions of taxpayers money because of shoddy contracts and kickbacks.

However, what I AM saying is that every single civil servant should fall under Minijust’s proposed code. Why should only the lawyers suffer? So should Rwanda Revenue Authority staff who undervalue imported products in Magerwa. So, should procurement officers who overvalue ministry supplies and then receive kickbacks.

There shouldn’t be an anti-corruption rule for some and not for others. There shouldn’t be high standards for some and not for their counterparts in other state organs. They are all part of one entity, the public sector, and they should therefore fall under the same rules and guidelines.

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Traffic Police needs to become more responsive to daily gridlock

Traffic jams at Gishushu have become a normal part of Kigali living

Traffic jams at Gishushu have become a normal part of Kigali living

 Everyday, from between 7:15 am to 8, and then from around 5:45 pm to 7pm, I do all I can to avoid driving home. That is because I happen to live quite close to the RDB-Nyarutarama road junction. Those who have never passed there will not know the place and those who have will shudder at the memory.

I understand that traffic jams are a normal part of Kigali these days, especially with Rwandans increased purchasing power and the single-lane streets. I really do. However, just because jams should be expected doesn’t mean that we should shrug our shoulders and bear with them. There are things that can be done to alleviate them.

For example, it has come to my attention that traffic police only make an appearance when things have gotten out of hand and there is absolute gridlock. Why aren’t they there, before things get out of hand, to ensure that things don’t get out of hand in the first place?

Such daily oversight is simply incomprehensible. It really isn’t rocket science. IGP Gasana and co, simply order two or so constables to the area at around 7am and later at 5:30pm and make them start directing traffic flow as soon as possible and not when the jam has reached maddening levels.

Who in their right mind would choose plumbing over marketing? Only a fool

Carpentry

Listening keenly to the President Paul Kagame’s keynote address at the release of the 4th Integrated Household Living Conditions on Monday, I was thrilled to hear him comment on the lack of jobs for young people.

Speaking on the issue of youth unemployment and the role of vocational training in fighting it, he said “We fell short on the creation of non-farm jobs. This may help explain why university graduates have the highest unemployment rate; almost six times the national average. We can’t allow this worrisome trend to continue”.

President Kagame continued: “There are ways to address this problem. Different ways. One of them is if we really continued to invest heavily, for example, in TVET”.

(Watch President Kagame’s complete speech here)

TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is, I believe, the single most important weapon against the scourge of unemployment that has caused so many problems across our continent.

And to be honest with you, nothing scares me more than the sight of able-bodied young men (and women) sitting on the roadside, doing nothing but sharing alcoholic drinks and playing cards.

When I see them, I imagine a ticking time bomb that will blow up in all our faces if nothing is done. We saw the explosion during the Arab Spring. The xenophobic attacks in South Africa were a symptom of the issue and here in Rwanda, the Interahamwe militia was composed mainly of jobless youth.

There is nothing like boredom, unemployment and the lack of clear opportunities for social advancement to create a class of nihilists waiting for a chance to burn everything down, both figuratively and literally.

TVET institutions and programmes give young people a skill set that can put food on their tables and money in their pockets.

It can help create an artisan class, a group of people that we simply don’t have enough of in this country. I’m talking about properly trained welders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, watch repairmen, cobblers and metalworkers. For too long, we’ve had to either import trained labor from our neighbours or had to do make do with shoddy workmanship from our own people.

Let us not be mistaken. Building TVET’s across the country will not magically transform everything. TVET’s are not the silver bullets that will slay the unemployment monster. There are a lot of things that must be done before we see that happen.

Firstly, we need to do something about the ‘university’ culture in this country. We need to move away from the worship of the ‘kaminuza’ (university) and its ivory tower siren call and celebrate the blue-collar worker.

But that will only happen when a blue-collar career is seen as a viable option for someone who wants to own a home, a car and put their children through school. I mean, even if a senior six student loves carpentry as long as they qualify to study statistics, for example, in university, they will choose the degree programme over carpentry course in a TVET institution because they will earn more as a statistician than as a carpenter. For at the end of the day, it is all about the money.

Money. Or, should I say, the lack of it is the real reason that vocational training is not seen as the first choice for graduating high school students.

But that isn’t set in stone; blue-collar work shouldn’t be equated with low wages. In fact, in the United Kingdom and Germany, plumbers earn pretty good wages. As do bricklayers, electricians and mechanics.

Why is this? Probably because they are treated as a professional class akin to lawyers and doctors. Like doctors, they have regulatory bodies that give them certification.

You cannot wake up and become a plumber just because you know to fix a pipe. You cannot become a mechanic because you’ve changed a battery before. You have to go to mechanic school, take an apprenticeship, pass a test to get certified and then, and only then, can you call yourself a mechanic and sell your services to the public.

What such a tedious training and certification process guarantees is the professionalisation of a trade. With professionalisation comes unionisation and regulatory oversight. And because charlatans are gotten rid of public trust increases and better wages follow.

I’m not saying that we should wake up and prohibit all non-professionals from working, what I’m saying is that there needs to be a roadmap for the professionalisation of a number of blue-collar jobs.

The government can start by, for example, helping Kigali plumbers create a union or even a cooperative of their own. Such a cooperative would have certain minimum entry test. This cooperative would then be given preferential treatment when it came to government tenders and other lucrative gigs. As a result of this preferential treatment more and more plumbers would want to become members of the co-op simply because of the better pay and conditions its members received. Eventually, after a critical mass of Kigali plumbers was reached, membership of the cooperative could then become compulsory. Such a cooperative would be charged with ensuring standards, minimum prices and issuing operating licenses.

With good, guaranteed wages and public respect (which is a hugely important social capital in this country), more people would consider blue-collar careers. That’s just my two cents.

Kigali water crisis: does WASAC only serve the lucky few?

Its been a hard couple of months for Kigali residents

Its been a hard couple of months for Kigali residents

Last week, while walking past the work canteen I was called over by a small group of people and then, not surprisingly anymore, promptly blamed for getting the ball rolling on the car-free zone concept. Tired of having to explain myself I was about to walk away when one of them said something that stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking. “If your writing is making us sweat (by forcing them to walk in town instead of drive around in their air-conditioned jeeps), then help us at least bathe after at least”.

For weeks now, people have been tweeting me, asking me to write about the water shortage in Kigali. I’d chosen not to because I felt that I couldn’t really add anything to the conversation. After all, the issue was quite obvious in my estimation. Or at least I thought so.

I assumed that only few issues caused the water shortage.

First of all, water production. According to the Water and Sanitation Corporation Limited (WASAC), it can only presently avail 65,000 cubic metres of water per day against the demand of 110,000 cubic metres per day. In other words, only about half of Kigali’s water needs are being met by WASAC and that means that close to 500,000 residents cannot have a stable source of clean drinking water.

Secondly, damaged and old piping. The vast majority of our water network is decades old. That means that the pipes are more likely to burst simply because they are ancient. I’ve read a statistic somewhere that states that almost a quarter of our water is lost through seepage. WASAC isn’t the only one to blame here. I cannot count the number of times I’ve driven past a road and seen clean water gushing out of a broken pipe. All because a road crew didn’t do its homework and figure out where the pipes were.

The last reason why I thought Kigali residents went weeks on end without water was because of the topography of our city. I assumed that those who lived closer to the valleys had a more reliable supply of water than residents living in higher places such as Rebero because of gravity.

Guess my surprise when I discovered that none of the above reasons explained why some neighborhoods had water almost all the time (like mine in Gishushu), while others have gone weeks on end (like Kimironko).

Speaking to people, they asked why some people seemed to have a greater right to a regular supply of water than others. Why didn’t I, living in Gishushu, go more than a day or two without water? Did I pay more taxes? Why weren’t we able to share this scarce resource more equitably?

I suggest to WASAC that they begin actually systematically providing water to different neighborhoods in a scheduled manner. And then tell people that they have done so by disseminating that information using both their social media accounts and traditional media.

If they don’t do something like that, something that is transparent and known by everyone, people will have no choice but to believe that some Rwandans are more special than others. And that is unacceptable to not only me but it also goes against everything post-1994 Rwanda is all about.

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What can Rwanda teach Africa about retaining its youngest and brightest?

Young Rwandans at the Atlanta Rwanda Day celebrations

Young Rwandans at the Atlanta Rwanda Day celebrations

Rwandan youth groups in Canada are organizing, in conjunction with our High Commission in Ottawa, the first International Rwanda Youth for Development in Montreal from 25-27 September this year.

In the words of Moses Gashirabike,”the convention will discuss and propose solutions for encouraging more Rwandan youth to participate in their country’s economic development”.

The meeting in Canada is only one of the many meetings that young Rwandans have with senior government officials both within and outside the country. In these meetings young people are allowed to ask questions, challenge policies and understand their country better. They are treated with respect and shown that they are important.

In the civil service and the armed forces, young people are trusted with the levers of power. They are not left endlessly knocking on the doors of leadership, waiting their turn while elderly men (and women) toddle about, regaling them with tales of what they did during the struggle while asking them to “stop being so impatient”.

Which is why when the recent WEF (World Economic Forum) Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015 was published, Rwanda was ranked number one in Africa in its ability to retain its top talent.

Young people know that if they work hard in school and show good aptitude, the very sky is the limit. They know that they don’t have to swim across the Mediterranean Sea to get a chance of a good life. They know nothing is stopping them from getting one here at home.

The New Times published this blog post