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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