3 October 2011

As Parliament continues to amend the Penal Code, civil society groups are calling on legislators to decriminalise or at least lessen the punishments handed to women caught in acts of abortion.

In June this year, lawmakers refused to heed to the calls of activists to decriminalise the act and instead maintained sentences on abortion, but civil society groups insist that criminalising abortion infringes on women rights contending that more lives will continue to be lost in the act carried out clandestinely.

In a last ditch attempt, the civil society groups are set to petition both chambers of parliament to drop the sentences on abortion or at least ease on the punishment handed to offenders, arguing that it amounts to punishing a person twice.

Members of the civil society, last week, met to discuss the challenges women in particular face due to criminalising abortion and how negating this can help reduce maternal mortality rates.

During the workshop organised by Health Development Initiative (HDI) Rwanda, it was observed that that studies conducted indicate that abortion cases remain high, though they are conducted secretly and women and girls continue to die quietly.

According to Cassien Havugimana, the Programmes Manager at HDI, members of the civil society discussed how the laws punishing abortion can be completely scrapped or eased to avoid infringing on women rights.

“The penal code is currently under review and we think it is important that the jail terms of 10 to 15 years given to those found guilty for abortion are revised. Criminalising abortion means that more women will continue to die.

“Once decriminalised, more women will be able to access post abortion medical care. This will be in line with according women their full rights and on the other hand help government reduce maternal mortality rates,” Havugimana said.

However, legalising abortion remains a hotly contested subject especially with moralists arguing that abortion is against African culture and can lead to moral degeneration once legalised while faith based organisations insist that abortion amounts to sin.

During the meeting, members of the civil society observed that legalising abortion would also come with its challenges including degenerating societal morals, but the rights groups maintain that mass awareness can prevent high cases of abortion.

The workshop brought together women organisations, human rights groups, youth associations as well as legal and health experts, local and foreign.

Moses Gahigi, the Director of Fight Illiteracy Youth Organisation (FIYO), a local NGO said that there is need for civil society groups to engage with lawmakers to see how lives can be saved though legal abortion processes.

“We need to have a common understanding on how this article can be pulled out of the penal code. We cannot sit back and assume people are not dying because of abortion,” he said.

Despite requests from activists, in June, Senators voted to retain jail sentences for abortion and prostitution, but the section on abortion in the penal code is still under review in both houses.

Previously, several activist groups had petitioned Parliament requesting that the lawmakers decriminalise abortion and prostitution but the requests fell on deaf ears.

However, as Parliament is set resume the debate on Monday, MP Connie Bwiza warned that the issue of decriminalising abortion remains a delicate one and civil society groups should go about it carefully.

“This is a very controversial issue. This is an issue we need to look at comprehensively because it is more complicated than civil society groups think.

“We need to put into consideration issues such as the level of development and issues pertaining to culture. Do we have enough facilities or personnel to attend to abortion cases? No. What we are looking at now is not that but rather children dying of malnutrition,” MP Bwiza said.

In most African countries abortion is illegal, yet according to a study carried out by the United Nations, abortion remains among the leading causes of death.