Human rights-based civil society organisations in Rwanda are contemplating challenging the Penal Code in the Supreme Court if what they see as restrictive clauses on abortion is not removed.
Vowing to protect women’s right to safe abortion, the organisations say they have a right to challenge the Penal Code, second in supremacy after the Constitution, if the restrictive clauses are not stripped out of the legislation.
Articles 165 and 166 on abortion, contained in the 2012 Penal Code, were amended in conformity with international conventions. However, the CSOs insist that there is a need for further revision of the articles to remove clauses that they say have failed the applicability of the right to safe abortion.
According to Tom Mulisa, the executive director of Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Democracy (GLIHD), while Rwanda revised the Penal Code to allow abortion in special cases in conformity with the international conventions, particularly the Maputo Convention, a restrictive clause that makes the applicability impossible was included in the law.
“The law does not allow abortion as many took it but allows abortion in special exceptions in accordance with the African Women’s Protocol (Maputo Protocol) but even in situations of such exceptions, it is impossible to have these women rights upheld,” Mr Mulisa said.
The law allows abortions in situations of rape, incest, forced marriage and if the pregnancy is found to cause a health risk to the woman.
“In the limited cases where it is permissible, barriers to safe abortion are insurmountably high,” said Mr Mulisa. “For example, a woman who wants a legal abortion in Rwanda first needs certification from a competent court that her pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or forced marriage.
“She then needs authorisation from two doctors. All these are time-consuming and resource-straining.”
Launching a parallel report to the Universal Peer Review that will take place in November and research findings of the study on access to safe and legal abortion, Mr Mulisa decried an alleged lack of information about the law which he said turns many vulnerable women to victims of the law that is meant to protect them.
The report, When Abortion is a Crime: Rwanda, says most victims of the abortion criminalisation are vulnerable women, minors or the poor.
“Most women are unable to fulfill the required steps to legal abortion either because they are unaware of the law or do not have the resources to find a lawyer, while at the same time healthcare providers and judges themselves are unaware of the law,” the report says.
The report says 20 per cent to 30 per cent of female prisoners in the four prisons the research team studied had been incarcerated for abortion charges.
The report argues that the Penal Code violates women’s right to health by creating legal barriers to safe abortion.
“The legal barriers to safe abortion violate women’s right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health by creating an environment that limits access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care,” the report reads.
Dr Aflodis Kagaba, the director, Health Development Initiative (HDI), noted that if somebody decided to abort a pregnancy, nothing can stand in their way. He said this has led women to consumption of toxic concoctions while others seek unskilled service providers.