New report calls for release of Rwandan women and girls unjustly imprisoned for abortion

Hundreds of Rwandan women and girls are unjustly harassed, prosecuted and imprisoned each year on abortion-related charges, according to a new report from Ipas and the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD). The report calls on the Rwandan government to release all women, girls and health-care professionals unjustly incarcerated as a result of punitive abortion laws and to take steps to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies and to improve access to safe, legal abortion.

The report, When Abortion Is a Crime: Rwanda, was conducted over a three-year period by the global nongovernmental organization Ipas, which is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion, in partnership with GLIHD, a Kigali-based human rights organization that promotes social accountability and the right of citizens to expect and ensure that the government acts in the best interest of the people. They found that at five selected prisons in Rwanda, nearly one-quarter of all female prisoners were incarcerated on abortion-related charges.

Even though the Rwandan penal code was revised in 2012 to permit abortion for some indications, the report describes how legal, cultural and other barriers make it “nearly impossible” for women to get safe, legal abortions. Women with unplanned or unwanted pregnancies resort to unsafe and illegal abortions; many end up with injuries requiring emergency medical care. Alarmingly, many women and girls are also being reported to the police by health-care providers, neighbors, or even family members when they seek medical help for injuries from an unsafe abortion.

Gillian Kane, Ipas senior policy advisor and primary author of the report, explains that while the health consequences of restrictive abortion laws are well-documented, there has been little or no investigation into how criminal abortion laws are enforced. “In Rwanda, we found hundreds of women and girls, almost all with no previous criminal records, being arrested following reports to the police by a member of their community,” she says.  “Some women are serving sentences as long as 15 years.”

According to the report, most women in Rwanda are unable to fulfill the required steps under the 2012 law for obtaining a legal abortion: “They are either unaware of the law or, if they have knowledge of the requirements, they do not have the money or resources to find either a provider, lawyer or a judge. Often judges and health-care professionals themselves are unaware of the law.”

The report describes that, as it is written and applied, the Rwandan abortion law violates fundamental human rights—including rights to health, to freedom from discrimination, to privacy and to a fair trial. “Access to safe abortion is an essential part of sexual and reproductive health and rights,” it says, adding, “Whenever governments make safe abortion services inaccessible to the people who need them, women’s human rights to health and to freedom from discrimination are violated.”

Tom Mulisa, executive director of GLIHD and a human rights lawyer, explains a key finding is how the law is discriminatorily enforced: “Women who are poor and young—those least able to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies—are also the most likely to be accused of criminal abortion.”

The report is also available in French