When Abortion law becomes the order of the day

ON June 14 last year, the Rwanda Penal Code was amended to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. The new amendment allows a woman to abort if she is a victim of incest, rape, forced marriage, or if the pregnancy is a threat to her health.

However, this is only on condition that the person intending to abort submits a certificate issued by court to her doctor. But since the amendments, the penal code is fast gathering dust, over a year later no known case has been registered with courts.

Tom Mulisa, a city lawyer who has dealt with abortion cases says that many people are not aware of the legal procedures regarding the abortion clause. He says no one has actually approached the courts of law for an abortion court order.

“We haven’t registered cases of women coming for a court order to allow them abort. And to go to court you must enlist services of a lawyer, which might be expensive for most ordinary people,” Mulisa explains.

According to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), 340 deaths per 100,000 live births that constitute maternal mortality in Rwanda are a result of unsafe abortion.

Experts say that having no people doing this legally, yet the figures of abortion related deaths are up, indicates a likely problem with the law.

“This court order authorisation for one to abort seems to be a barrier to the good intention of the law because unsafe abortion has continued but illegally. For example, last month the court sentenced a woman to five years in prison after pleading guilty to abortion. During the court session, she confessed to not knowing about the legal requirements for one to carryout abortion.”

Mulisa, who is also a lecturer of Law at the National University of Rwanda, adds that people believe that the court process takes too long and is expensive.

“Although the courts said that the court order on abortion will be a quick process thus dealing with it as an urgent application, I discovered that people are not aware of this. People know that abortion is totally illegal. I think before we criticise the exemptions of the articles regarding abortion in the penal code, there is need to explain the content to the people because people are totally not aware of these provisions,” Mulisa discloses.

“Abortion remained illegal although the ground at which it is supposed to be done is different from the former law which only accepted abortion on healthy grounds. The current law also allows abortion in rape cases, incest and forced marriage,” Mulisa continues.

The April 2013 fact sheet of Guttmacher Institute about abortion in Rwanda shows that Rwanda’s growing numbers of sexually active, single women (aged 15-29) are especially vulnerable to unintended pregnancy and induced abortion. 56 per cent of these are young women in general, and 69 per cent of those in the Western province have an unmet need for contraception.

Chantal Umuhoza, the Project Coordinator of Safe Abortion Action Fund under ARBEF (Association Rwandaise pour le Bien-Etre Familial’s), argues that the court order to be presented before abortion is not helping in dealing with unsafe abortion.

“It is completely impossible and very hard for a woman who wants to have an abortion resulting from rape, incest or forced marriage to openly go to court seeking for approval. Its already long and tiresome, and no one wants to go through that process,” Umuhoza says.

Guttmacher Institute also recommends that women, medical professionals, the judiciary and law enforcement officials need to be made aware of the legal criteria for provision of abortion services as allowed by the expanded legal grounds.

“Abortion is a very sensitive and highly secretive issue. No one has the courage to go through such a process just to have an abortion. It means that women and girls will still opt for unsafe abortion options since they are readily available and no one has to know. Women shy away from seeking safe abortion thus unsafe abortions will persist,” Umuhoza explains.

ARBEF, which was established in 1986, offers sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services in different parts of the country especially in rural areas and their main target group is the youth.

Umuhoza adds, “The abortion law is not different from the old one because abortion is still a crime even with the exemptions in the new law.”

Cassien Havugimana, Programmes Director at the Health Development Initiative (HDI), says that the articles of abortion in the Penal Code don’t solve the problem of unsafe abortion.

“Article 165 of the Penal Code stating the crimes regarding abortion says that there is no criminal liability for a woman who induces her own abortion and a medical doctor who aids abortion when a woman conceived out of rape, forced marriage, incest in the second degree, and when the continuation of pregnancy seriously puts the health of the unborn baby or the mother at risk. But all these will be allowed with a court order and acquiring the court order may take time and this doesn’t solve a lot,” Havugimana explains.

Health Development Initiative (HDI) is a nonprofit organisation with projects concerning sexual health and reproductive education in the Rwanda. It’s also the organisation at the forefront of the campaign regarding condom accessibility in secondary schools.

“Personally, I wish the court order could be removed. I believe the doctor should be given the responsibility. As a human rights activist, I wish we had embraced the South African abortion law, which allows one who has requested for an abortion to go to a doctor for counseling at least three times before the abortion process,” Havugimana expresses.

He says that a meeting he attended on August 21, 2013, organised by the Ministry of Health in collaboration with Venture Strategies Innovations (VSI), looked into the implementation of the exemptions provided by the amended penal code for abortion in Rwanda. It was held at Umubano Hotel and provided an opportunity to see how the legal environment will address the implementation of these articles without affecting the quality of reproductive health services.

“With the implementation of these articles of the Penal Code, there is need for sensitisation because some Rwandans are confused and think that abortion was legalised which is not true. People need to be sensitised on this issue. Legal personalities like judges, who give the court order on abortion, and doctors should let Rwandans know how they can appeal if they are denied the court order,” Havugimana emphasises.

“The Ministry of Health needs to set up guidelines such as when abortion can be done based on the period of the pregnancy and all hospitals need to be informed, even the legal personalities will need to know the right time to offer these court orders. Therefore they all need to be aware,” Havugimana explains.

The penalty for abortion without a court order as stated in the Penal Code is a criminal offence liable to imprisonment and fines. The years of imprisonment, however, vary depending on a number of circumstances.

Editor, Marie Louise Uwizeyimana of Intego newspaper, says that even before the articles about abortion in the Penal Code were changed, she believed in legalising abortion. “In most cases where a country has restrictive abortion laws, the incidents of unsafe abortion have not reduced thus putting the women’s lives at risk with issues like severe bleeding and even death yet it can be preventable. Women have the right to choose whether to abort or not,” Uwizeyimana explains.

She adds, “If women are able to exercise reproductive rights and access contraception, there will be a reduction in unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions.

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