On May 20, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda announced the release of 50 women imprisoned for undergoing, seeking, or helping others locate an abortion.
Their pardoning was part of Rwanda’s plan to reduce the number of people in prison to slow the spread of coronavirus. A total of 3,596 convicts were granted conditional release by the government this week. An additional 1,182 inmates were released last month.
Although the release of these women is welcome, human rights groups say that pardons are not enough. “While this is a good move, women and girls should never, in the first place, be imprisoned for exercising their reproductive rights,” said Dr. Agnes Odhiambo of Human Rights Watch in Kenya. “The government of Rwanda should remove all punitive measures for women who undergo abortions.”
In 2018, Rwanda updated its penal code to allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, forced marriage, and when the pregnancy poses a significant health risk. Rather than petitioning the courts, the revision allowed women to receive approval for abortions from recognized medical doctors.
The change was celebrated, but requiring a doctor to approve and perform abortions remains difficult in a country where medical professionals are in short supply. “There should be more conversation about the penal code that prohibits health professionals such as midwives from providing abortions,” women’s rights organizer Sylvie Nsanga told the Associated Press. “[The law] means that girls will continue to get pregnant, abort, be imprisoned and then get pardoned by the president.”
As Nsanga suggested, a large number of Rwandan women undergo illegal abortions as a result of these restrictive laws. A 2013 Guttmacher Institute report estimates that 60,000 abortions are carried out annually, a majority of which occur in unsafe conditions. The rate of complications for illegal abortions in Rwanda is estimated at 55 percent.
The criminalization of abortion also deters women from seeking additional medical care when experiencing complications from illegal abortions.
President Kagame released an additional 367 people for seeking or assisting abortions in 2019. Still, it is unclear how many women remain in prison on abortion-related charges. The most recent figures available show that 227 women were jailed in 2014 alone.
“Access to safe and legal abortions is a basic healthcare need and right,” said Niki Kandirikirira, Equality Now’s Global Director of Programs, in a statement. “Rather than punishing individuals who are dealing with unwanted or forced pregnancies, the Rwandan government should be removing legal restrictions, barriers to medical assistance, and stigma that force women and girls to resort to clandestine and unsafe procedures.”
Sources: The Guardian 5/21/2020; The Independent 5/20/2020; The Associated Press 5/19/2020; Time 4/6/2019