Gender-rights activists in Rwanda are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion, after President Paul Kagame pardoned 367 women jailed for abortion and infanticide.
“We are celebrating this victory—it is something to applaud the president about,” Annette Natukunda, a gender equality activist, told The EastAfrican.
“It is a giant step towards the granting of full women’s rights in Rwanda. These girls and women should never have been arrested in the first place.”
Last year, Rwanda revised its penal code to expand access to safe abortion services, demonstrating commitment to comply with the 2003 Maputo Protocol that calls for expansion of women’s rights in Africa.
In the amended code, abortion is allowed in the case of a child, in situations of rape, incest or if the pregnancy puts the woman’s health at risk.
But the law still awaits a ministerial order, which activists say is restrictive.
The current law still stipulates that “any person who performs an abortion on another person” is liable to imprisonment for three to five years, while those who perform “self-induced abortion” could face one to three years in jail.
Women’s-rights activists say that these articles should be repealed.
“Women should have full rights to their bodies and the ability to make decision about their reproductive health. Abortion should be seen as a reproductive health decision by an individual, not as a crime,” Ms Natukunda said.
Anti-abortion activists and religious leaders however differ, arguing that abortion is not permitted in the holy books, while all life including that of unborn babies must be protected by the state.
“I am a church man and the Bible does not allow it. Everyone has their opinion, and there must be a reason that may have led the president to give the pardon,” he said
Safe abortion services
Aflodis Kagaba, the executive director of the Health Development Initiative, said that progress in repealing some abortion laws in Rwanda’s previous penal code should be followed with provision of safe abortion services, which are still lacking countrywide.
“More prevention and training of healthcare providers is what is needed. Women need to know their rights so that they can demand safe abortions.
“The focus should be on preventing women from undergoing unsafe abortions and eventually from having unnecessary court procedures where they end up in prison,” he said.
It is the second time that President Kagame has issued mass pardons to abortion convicts; the previous time was in 2016 when he pardoned 62 girls and women convicted for abortion.
Unlike in the past when the decision to abort was in the hands of the court, today the process can be carried out after consultation between a woman and her doctor.