Rwanda: Ensure Access to Safe Legal Abortions

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Date: 
30 May 2012
Update Date: 
11 Jul 2012
Update: 

UPDATE 11 July 2012: Equality Now welcomes the new Rwandan Penal Code legalizing abortion under certain circumstances, mentioned below in our Urgent Alert, which was signed by the President and came into effect on 14 June 2012. Unfortunately, none of the pre-conditions to obtaining an abortion were removed. The Penal Code was also not amended to allow trained mid-level healthcare providers to conduct safe abortions, so denying women greater access to reproductive health and rights.

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Equality Now welcomes the bill recently approved by the Rwandan legislature expanding abortion rights to allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy in cases of incest, rape, forced marriage, or if the pregnancy threatens her health. However, undue pre-conditions – in particular requiring a woman to obtain a court order and approval by two doctors before she can procure an abortion and only allowing doctors to perform abortions – threaten to make safe abortions almost impossible for many women to access. Most women do not have access to courts or doctors. Medical care is provided by trained health care providers. Studies have shown that trained nurses and midwives are as capable as doctors in providing safe abortion care.

The bill is currently pending before Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and human rights groups across Africa are calling on him to ensure the removal of the above listed pre-conditions before signing it into law. In addition, he should ensure that mid-level trained health care providers are allowed to perform safe abortions.

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According to a recent study, approximately 20% of Rwandan women will require treatment for complications from an unsafe abortion at some point in their lifetime. Comprehensive reproductive rights, including access to safe abortions, are therefore vital to addressing this health crisis. Restrictive abortion laws have not been shown to reduce incidences of abortion, but rather puts women’s lives at risk when they resort to unsafe, often botched, abortions which can cause injuries ranging from loss of fertility to death from hemorrhaging. If women were able to exercise their full range of reproductive rights, including the right of access to contraception, there would be a dramatic reduction in unwanted pregnancy and consequently in abortions.

The proposed legislation begins to bring Rwanda in line with its obligations under regional and international human rights instruments to ensure that a woman’s right to health, including sexual and reproductive health, is promoted and respected. Among other human rights treaties, Rwanda is a party to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which requires States parties under Article 14(2)(c) to “protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus.”

While the new law aims to legalize abortions in instances of rape, incest or medical necessity, the pre-conditions and restrictions threaten to make these rights meaningless for many Rwandan women and girls, particularly poor and rural women who have limited access to courts and doctors. Countries such as Ethiopia and Nepal have liberalized abortion laws and trained nurses and midwives to perform safe abortions and to provide post-abortion care, resulting in greater access for women to reproductive rights.

What You Can Do: 

Call on President Kagame to uphold Rwanda’s international legal obligations by:

  • Removing the pre-conditions requiring women to obtain a court order and approval by two doctors in order to access a safe abortion.
  • Amending the bill to allow for trained mid-level health care providers to conduct abortions before the safe abortion bill is signed into law.
  • Ensuring women are able to access safe abortions.

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Letters should go to President Paul Kagame:

c/o Ines Mpambara
Director of Cabinet Office of the President
Email: inesmp@presidenccy.gov.rw

or via the contact form on the President's web page

Letters: 

Dear President Kagame,

I welcome the passage of legislation allowing a woman to obtain an abortion if she becomes pregnant as a result of incest, rape, forced marriage, or if the pregnancy threatens her health. I am writing to express my support for the men and women in Rwanda who are advocating for women to be able to access safe abortions.

However, burdensome pre-conditions – in particular requiring a woman to obtain a court order and approval by two doctors before she can procure an abortion and only allowing doctors to perform abortions – threaten to make safe abortions almost impossible for many women to access. I understand that most women do not have access to courts or doctors and consequently would not be able to benefit from this law. I therefore respectfully request that you do all you can to ensure the removal of these pre-conditions before signing the bill into law. In addition, please ensure that mid-level trained health care providers are allowed to perform safe abortions.

These changes would help women access safe abortions and so reduce the danger of maternity mortality and health complications. They would also be consistent with Rwanda’s obligations under the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well other instruments. Please do all that you can to ensure that women are able to access safe abortions.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,