Rwanda is to release 50 young women convicted of abortion (But about nine people who aided the illegal process will stay in jail to serve their full sentences), after a personal pardon was 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 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.”
Rwanda revised its penal code in 2018, allowing abortion strictly only for cases of minors, rape, forced marriage, incest and instances where the pregnancy poses a health risk.
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.
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.
Mulisa said that more than the narrow specified circumstances permitting abortion should legally be supported. “This point, when the pregnancy puts at risk the health of the pregnant person or of the foetus. As defined by the World Health Organization, health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Many people do not understand what it means. There are many reasons that can affect the social wellbeing,” he said.
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 show there were 227 women jailed for abortion in 2014. It’s not clear how many remain in prison.
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