Religion, Confusion on Rwanda’s New Abortion Law Drive Debate


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A revised penal code decriminalizing abortion under certain circumstances has met opposition from the community.

KIGALI, RWANDA Charlotte Mukamabano, a banana vendor in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, says she disapproves of a new law legalizing abortion in certain instances.

“I am totally against this law,” Mukamabano says.

In the revised Penal Code of Rwanda, Article 165 decriminalizes abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape, forced marriage or sexual intercourse with a close family relative. It also decriminalizes abortion when the pregnancy jeopardizes the health of the unborn baby or the mother.

But Mukamabano says this contradicts her beliefs.

“God does not allow this,” she says. “This is a sin. It may even cause them death. This is a taboo.”

She says that women should take more responsibility for their sexual activity and be more respectful of divine will.

“When you become pregnant, it means you have selected it,” she says. “And it is a gift from God, so to abort is against God’s will.”

Government officials say changes in society required an updated abortion law, with activists insisting that it will reduce the number of abandoned children and clandestine abortions. But the article has met opposition in the community stemming from religious beliefs and lack of awareness about the new law’s stipulations. Government officials and activists promote education surrounding the new law so that citizens understand it and can use it or demand its revision.

An estimated 60,000 abortions occurred in 2009 in Rwanda, with about one in 40 women ages 15 to 44 seeking an abortion, according to a study conducted by the National University of Rwanda’s School of Public Health and the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that works to advance reproductive health. The study found that almost all of these abortions were clandestine procedures that were highly likely to be unsafe.

Under the previous penal code, abortion was illegal in Rwanda except in cases of medical emergency. Under the revised penal code published in June 2012, Article 165 decriminalized abortion under four circumstances.

The government changed the law because the previous one was outdated, says Jacqueline Bakamurere, assistant attorney general in charge of legal aid and human rights for the Ministry of Justice.

“It was dated 1977,” she says. “And, therefore, it was not matching to the current situation in Rwanda.”

Just as the government added new articles regulating cybercrimes after the Internet launched in Rwanda, it must keep up with other changes, she says.

“It is a kind of modernizing it accordingly to the development of the country,” she says.

The revised penal code also responds to the number of unwanted children born to unprepared mothers, says Epimack Kwokwo, executive secretary of the Human Rights League of the Great Lakes Region, an organization that encourages cooperation to address common human rights challenges. Mothers may abandon or neglect these children, who face problems ranging from malnutrition to homelessness.

“This law will help to save those births who were facing difficulties because they were born in an unwanted condition,” Kwokwo says.

The revised law also aims to reduce clandestine abortions, says Chantal Umuhoza, an activist at Rwandese Association for the Promotion of Family Welfare, an organization that works to improve the well-being of families. Thousands of women have abortions each year, but they fear going to the hospital because they know it’s against the law and they may be punished.

“So we see this law as very important because it will reduce the effect that this clandestine abortion had on girls and their conceived children,” she says.

But abortion remains a taboo subject in Rwanda. Five women who allegedly had abortions, some before and some after the new law, denied seeking the procedure and declined to be interviewed.

Religious belief is one of the main factors in arguments against the revised abortion law, says Violette Kabarenzi, a gender specialist who works for a local nongovernmental organization that provides support for women.

“Most of Rwandans believe in God,” she says. “So when someone commits such a fault, she is fearful to speak out and be blamed in her family or community.”

A lack of knowledge among the public about changes in the law also creates confusion, she says. Even if the penal code now says that women are allowed to obtain abortions in certain cases, not all pregnant women are aware of the change and may continue to seek clandestine abortions.

“Some are still thinking that all cases are banned as before,” Kabarenzi says. “As a result, they prefer to keep silent.”

Conversely, others misinterpret the law, seeing it as permission for any woman to seek an abortion, Kwokwo says.

“Many people, after getting the law, think every woman is allowed to abort when she does not want to give birth,” he says. “But conditions are there.”

If an abortion does not meet the qualifying four conditions, those who undergo, cause a woman to undergo or perform the illegal procedure face jail sentences ranging from one to 15 years, according to the penal code. There are also fines.

Kwokwo recommends further education about the new penal code in the community.

“Some people are getting this wrongly,” he says. “I think we need more sensitization about the law.”

Umuhoza also advocates for continued education about Article 165 in order to reduce the number of women who seek clandestine abortions.

“We are doing a campaign session to include laws, which protect them too, so that they can do this at the hospital for their well-being,” she says.

It is mainly people from villages who oppose this law because they do not know exactly what it means, Bakamurere says. She says the Ministry of Justice is developing a plan to make visits in the field to better educate the population.

The government publishes the Official Gazette, a booklet with every new law signed by the cabinet and president of Rwanda. The Ministry of Justice encourages Rwandans to read through the law in order to understand it. Then, they can contribute their opinion and possibly demand the law’s amendment.

“When a law has been put into action and signed and people continue demonstrating with convincing ideas that they are not really happy with the law, we may change it,” says Alain Mukurarinda, a lawyer from the Ministry of Justice.