Rwanda’s penal code puts women and girls at risk of unsafe abortion and imprisonment

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hundreds of Rwandan women and girls are unjustly harassed, arrested, 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).

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. What has been largely underreported until now is that 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.

The report, When Abortion Is a Crime: Rwanda, is the second in a series of Ipas studies looking at the legal and human rights impact of criminal abortion laws on women, their families and their communities. The first report focused on three Latin American countries—Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. The report on Rwanda was conducted over a three-year period by Ipas in partnership with GLIHD, a Kigali-based human rights organization.

Gillian Kane, Ipas senior policy advisor and primary author of the report, says 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.”

Legal requirements create barriers to safe care

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 law requires women seeking an abortion for health reasons to get the approval of two doctors—a huge barrier to access in a country with only one doctor for every 17,000 people. Women seeking abortion for rape, incest or forced marriage must first get approval from a judge. Since most Rwandans live in rural areas with limited access to courts, this too presents a significant barrier to access for the average Rwandan woman or girl.

Ipas and GLIHD conducted research from July 2013 to April 2014, focusing on five prisons which had previously been identified as having the highest number of detainees for abortion-related crimes. The study found 313 women and girls incarcerated for illegal abortions—a number comprising nearly a quarter of the female population in each of those prisons.

The report also draws on information gathered from in-depth interviews Ipas and GLIHID conducted with 20 women at those five prisons. The women were asked about the events surrounding their arrest, circumstances that had led them to seek an abortion, and information about their employment, health, family and home life and social contacts. Of the 20 women, several were pregnant by men who were paying for their basic necessities—their school, clothing and food.

One young woman, whose story is outlined in the report, was 18 years old when she was arrested and imprisoned. She became pregnant when she was 17 and took pills to end the pregnancy. When she began suffering from complications while in her school bathroom the school intervened and reported her to the police. During her trial she had no legal representation and pleaded guilty in order to get a reduced sentence. She was sentenced to one year in prison.

The report explains 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,” the report 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, a human rights lawyer who is executive director of GLIHD, says one key finding from the report is how discriminatorily the law is 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,” he says.


The report calls for the Rwandan government to address this “ongoing human rights violation” by taking steps to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies and to prevent women from resorting to unsafe abortions. It recommends that the government:

  • Release all women, girls and health-care professionals who are unjustly incarcerated as a result of punitive abortion laws;
  • Disseminate information about the revised abortion law and its requirements to women, girls, health-care providers, police and judges;
  • Establish clear and streamlined procedures to facilitate obtaining judicial authorization for a legal abortion;
  • Invest in effective prevention measures, including comprehensive sexuality education, elimination of gender discrimination and sexual violence, and full access to modern contraceptive methods; and
  • Broaden the law to permit nurses and midwives to perform abortion; doing so is an evidenced-based approach to expanding access to care.