Rwandese (youth) organisations offered a position paper on safe abortion to their President in January 2012. This position paper was the outcome of a 6 months project that resulted in a two-days meeting of supporters and opponents of abortion. Rutgers WPF financed this project.


Support girls

Abortion is punishable in Rwanda. Girls who get pregnant and choose for an abortion run the risk of ending up in prison. Moreover, they run a very serious health risk due to unsafe abortions. The Rwandese youth organisation Youth Action Movement (YAM) wants to change this. YAM originates from a Rwandese NGO ARBEF, member of IPPF, one of the partners of Rutgers WPF. YAM has noted the terrible circumstances of these girls, sometimes in prison, and tries to support them. YAM, therefore, advocates for safe abortion and tries to mobilise others to realise change.



YAM initiated a two-days meeting about safe abortion and after care. Approximately 50 people of 30 Rwandese NGO’s for young people participated. A majority of all present eventually subscribed to the position paper. The first step was to offer the position paper to the Rwandese President and the paper will be distributed further to have a positive influence on legislation.


Advocacy tools

Rutgers WPF has facilitated training courses and workshops for YAM and ARBEF with respect to sexuality and reproductive health of young people. They also developed advocacy tools and methods for safe abortion. Rutgers WPF works in different African and Asian countries on topics such as:

  • Access to contraceptives;
  • Safe abortion and good ante and postnatal care;
  • Addressing sensitive themes, such as safe abortion, sexual violence and sexual diversity.


A girl walking from school. (File Photo) (Photo Courtesy Katy Gabel/AllAfrica)

Abortion is an emotive issue anywhere in the world. Few discussions about abortion are ever moderate. They often draw the most extreme, passionate, distorted and even unreasoned views. And so it has been in Rwanda in the last few days.

The debate here has been fueled by two things. First, is government’s intention to amend the law on abortion. This has been interpreted (erroneously as it turns out) to mean that government intends to legalise abortion. It is this misinterpretation of intention that has excited passions.

Now, Rwanda has some of the most enlightened economic and social legislation. But it has not yet got anywhere near legalising some of the more controversial and divisive issues like abortion. In some instances, it has tended to decriminalise them, while in others, it has sought to reduce sentences and allow for extenuating circumstances.

In the present debate, the latter seems to have been the intention. The amendment to the law seeks to reduce sentence given to offenders. As Mr Tharcisse Karugarama, the Minister of Justice, said in a BBC Kinyarwanda programme, Imvo ni Imvano on March 24, offenders should be helped to heal instead of being heavily punished.

Second, was the publication of figures of cases of abortion in Rwanda. It was reported that 60,000 abortions take place in the country every year. Most of these are unsafe, with 40 per cent leading to complications that require treatment.

The number of abortions is probably higher than this because most of them go unreported. We do not even know how many die or whose reproductive capacity is irreparably damaged.

This is the context of the current debate. Most of what I have seen has been wrong. For instance, in all the public discussions, nearly all participants have been men – usually, old men. Most of the men have been religious leaders. You cannot expect a balanced view from this limited group with strongly-held views on the topic.

First of all abortion directly affects women. They are the ones who make the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy or not. It’s their lives that are in danger. And they cannot be said to be less concerned about their pregnancy than the men who pontificate about the sanctity of life from the emotional safety of the pulpit or office. Where are the women? They are markedly absent from the debate. Their views on the subject or reasons that compel them to acts of desperation have not been heard.

Also, where are the voices of young people, who are likely to be entangled in the whole question?

I think it is a waste of time to talk about an issue and seek to prescribe measures regarding it when those directly affected are excluded from the conversation.

Secondly, the views of the men who are brought to discuss abortion are so well known; there is nothing new to learn from them. They cannot be expected to offer any other solutions. All men of the cloth, of whatever faith, are vehemently opposed to abortion. They will not even listen to circumstances where terminating a pregnancy may be the only way to save a life or the sanity of an individual. Can they feel the anguish of a mother taking such a drastic decision? Can they feel the pain – physical and psychological – that may have accompanied conception and continue to dog the woman? They can only take refuge from the real world behind a veneer of smug piety and condemn what they have never felt or are indeed incapable of feeling.

I heard someone from civil society condemn abortion in stronger terms than the bishops did. It was easy to tell where his organisation gets its funding from.

But we have to consider this question. Why do abortions continue to take place despite the legal, moral and religious injunctions? Clearly, there are serious issues to look into, and sanctimonious posturing simply won’t do. The debate should address these issues.

Also consider this. Some of the good men of the cloth are responsible for some unwanted pregnancies. And when the poor girl or woman tells the man of God about the pregnancy, he will either deny it or threaten her with divine retribution for daring to slander the servant of the Most High. He will then proceed to denounce loudly the immorality in our society. He will cry and lament the level of moral decadence.

Think about this as well. How many of the obviously well-to-do men discussing this subject have come up to offer help to starving or traumatised children and mothers – victims of rape, incest, coercion by those who have authority over them or some other form of abuse?

We cannot solve the complex question of abortion through hypocrisy, posturing or pious statements about the sanctity of life because this amounts to hiding our heads in the sand.

The debate is healthy, if it takes the right direction. And obviously it is a complex problem as there are serious ethical and legal issues to weigh. But the debate must not be stilted or left to a bunch of old men to determine. Let those who are most affected have their say.

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.

The New Times, Rwanda

Late last week The New Times reported the arrest of two women, Clemence Yezakuzwe and Chantal Nyirandengayobagira, after they underwent abortions.

These two women, aged 25 and 21 respectively, have fallen foul of our criminal code which makes abortion illegal unless it’s carried out to save the life of the mother, and is supervised by a trained medical officer.

Ms.Nyirandengayo-bagira is currently in hospital after she developed complications and started hemorrhaging profusely.

Police in her home district of Rutsiro, say that she will be charged with murder as soon as she’s back on her feet. The same fate awaits Ms. Yezakuzwe.

The two have differing reasons for undergoing the dangerous operation; Nyirandengayobagira because her husband had abandoned her and Yezakuzwe says she simply wasn’t ready for a baby.

We cannot doubt that they indeed participated in this illegal activity; however I cannot simply say “they broke the law, they deserve the wrath of it”. I find the law itself harsh, unenforceable, mistaken and morally wrong. 

Abortion is frowned upon in so many countries because of the belief that human life begins at conception.

So, in other words, as soon as the egg is fertilized and attached itself to the uterine walls, human life has begun. A life that must be protected by the society it finds itself in.

But this begs a few questions that I feel must be answered by our law makers.

Does life really begin at the moment of conception? Or at some other period later on, is it in the second trimester or just in the third?

Presently Rwandan law does not make this distinction and as a result abortion can be exactly what a judge and prosecutor think it is.

This is extremely dangerous especially with the increased use of the Morning-After pill. This contraceptive, used not later than three days after unprotected sex, induces a miscarriage.

Women who use this pill, which is readily available in Rwandan pharmacies, to stop them getting pregnant are, at least according to Rwandan law, if it’s followed to the letter, guilty of abortion.

The new criminal code, which has still not been passed by the Parliament, has to carefully define exactly what the criminal definition of ‘abortion’ is.

To keep it ambiguous is dangerous and will put women in unnecessary collisions with the law.

From time immemorial abortion has been part of the human experience and, while it’s been frowned upon for just as long, it’s never become an outdated practice. There, surely, must be a reason for this.

Carrying a baby to term, giving birth to it and then raising it is hard work. Once that choice is made one’s life is forever altered, your life now revolves around another human being who is helpless without you.

That kind of responsibility is huge and should not be taken lightly and if a woman, for whatever reason, feels that she’s not able to handle it, who are we to tell her that she must? Are we punishing her because she dared have sex?

When one realizes that most of our laws are made by men, living in patriarchal societies, I begin to suspect that controlling female sexuality is the hidden goal of these anti-abortion laws.

While we might pretend that we are protecting the interests of the child, are we really? How is it in the best interests of the child to be raised in a household that doesn’t love him/her? Or simply can’t cater for its needs?

Raising a child in a loving household is hard enough; imagine doing it after your husband has abandoned you? Are we to further punish women because they aren’t able or ready to have a child? Where is our compassion?

What does it say about my society that a woman is dragged from a hospital bed to a jail cell?

In this religious nation (to think otherwise is silly) legalizing abortions will probably cause a big fuss. But to bury our heads in the sand and refuse to see that abortions are happening all the time, is irresponsible.

Why not get off our moral high horses and make sure that our precious women have the best medical care they can get? That would be the Christian thing to do.