Rwandan president Paul Kagame has pardoned and ordered the release of 50 young women who were jailed for having abortions.
Rwanda has highly restrictive abortion laws but the government amended it in August 2018 to permit abortions in instances of rape, incest, forced marriage, and cases where the health of the woman or foetus is endangered by a pregnancy.
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 others terms ranging from 12 months to 20 years.
“It is a positive step,” 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 said 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.”
Odhiambo said that sends the wrong message: that woman have to undergo certain abuses for them to exercise their reproductive rights.
Even where a termination is allowed, it must be carried out by a doctor, an issue in a country where medical professionals are in short supply, Odhiambo said.
Figures from 2016 by Rwanda Medical and Dental Council show the country has 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, said 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,” he said.
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 others. 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.
A 2015 study, 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 report of 2013 estimates that approximately 60,000 abortions occur in Rwanda each year and 22% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.
The latest figures available shows there were 227 women jailed for abortion in 2014. It is not clear how many remain in prison. (Source: The Guardian)