On 9 December 2016, an Extraordinary Cabinet meeting chaired by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, has pardoned 62 girls and women imprisoned for abortions when they were under the age of 16. Justice Minister, Johnston Busingye, explained to the New Times that the President was exercising his constitutional right under the prerogative of mercy.
In March 2016, Rwanda’s Law Reform Commission had proposed that the law on abortion should be relaxed to allow easy approval of abortion without a woman having to go through rigorous court procedures. Some lawmakers backed the proposal, but the review has not yet taken place. According to Justice Minister Busingye, the aim is for access to a legal abortion to be decided by doctors instead the courts. In December, he said a proposal for amendments would be sent to the Cabinet and the Parliament early this year.
Edward Munyamaliza, president of the Civil Society Platform, called it a “unique decision”, according to the New Times. However, his comments about those being pardoned anything but positive. He said, for example, that “Pardoning these women and girls will allow them another chance to reflect on the wrong decision they took at that time and encourage others not to make similar mistakes.” And he was opposed to any “relaxation” of the law as something that “goes against the Rwandan culture and values”.
Minister Busingye, on the other hand, said that the presidential pardon would not encourage more abortions because: “It is not such a tempting, enjoyable or rewarding action. It is, in many cases, a choice imposed on a girl or woman by a set of specific circumstances they find themselves and the unborn child in.” He appeared to be supporting further law reform tomake safe abortion more easily accessible, but he too saw abortion as an offence that “upset and hurt other individuals or society”.
Article 162 of the Penal Code punishes self-induced abortion with a term of imprisonment of one to three years and a fine of Rwf 50,000 to Rwf 200,000 (US$61-244).
In 2012, reform of Article 165 of the Penal Code absolved from criminal liability a woman who has an abortion or a medical doctor who facilitates an abortion in cases of incest, rape, forced marriage, and when the continuation of a pregnancy seriously threatens the health of the unborn baby or the pregnant woman. But it requires both a professional doctor and a competent court of law to authorise an abortion. In rural areas, there are very few of either to be found, and pursuing a legal abortion is time-consuming and full of obstacles.
Data from the Rwanda Correctional Services showed that from 2008 to 2013, there were 227 women in prison for abortion and 367 for infanticide. A 2013-14 study on women in prison for abortion by Ipas and the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD) found that from July 2013 to April 2014, 313 women and girls were incarcerated for illegal abortions in five of 11 prisons with the most women inmates. Many women convicted for infanticide or murder reported that they had had abortions and had been wrongfully prosecuted. Both charges carry a higher penalty than abortion. Few of the women had legal representation. Most were young and poor and had pleaded guilty even before reaching court.
One judge interviewed by Ipas and GLIHD said that he had heard many criminal abortion cases, but had never received a single application for a legal abortion, not even on the grounds of incest or rape. A case is usually taken to a primary court local to the woman, but a 2016 judiciary report found that it may take up to three months for a case to be heard, and if it is refused an appeal would take even longer. In cases of rape, the court demands proof of guilt of rape. Even when it is a life-threatening emergency, the discretion of the court remains.
In recent research conducted by the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD) published in 2016, countless women are still forced to resort to unsafe abortions because of the obstacles created by the current law. They found that only 2,644 abortions had been undertaken at hospitals, of which 97% were to save the life of the woman. In contrast, according to a May 2014 report by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2012 the Rwandan government paid an estimated $1.7 million to treat approximately 18,000 women for complications of unsafe abortion; this was some 11% of the country’s total public spending on reproductive health.
Christopher Sengoga from GLIHD writes:
“The year 2016 has been full of positive strides regarding women’s safe abortion rights. Rwanda is currently reviewing its penal code to remove barriers that limit women to access safe abortion, the draft is in parliament for discussion. But it is not yet open for the public to debate and share views.
We hope there are no serious problems with the proposals. This view is based on a lobby by GLIHD of members of Parliament, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Gender and Family Promotion. The latter Minister gained experience in sexual and reproductive rights when she was a member of Parliament in the Committee on Gender and Women’s Rights.
And yet, one might ask…. why not pardon all the women in prison for abortion? [Editors]
SOURCES: Christopher Sengoga, GLIHD, E-mail, 6 January 2017; New Times Rwanda, by Athan Tashobya, 12 December 20165 ; KT Press, by Kalinda Brenda, 3 January 2017. + When Abortion is a Crime, Ipas and Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development, 2015. VISUAL: Kigali Today, KT Press