SOAWR Appeal on Rwanda Safe Abortion Law Reform

May 25 2012
The Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR) is a pan African coalition of 40 organisations in 20 countries, working towards the popularisation, domestication and implementation of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (hereinafter the Protocol). SOAWR applauds the continued leadership and commitment shown by the President and government of Rwanda to women’s empowerment and gender equality.
SOAWR also welcomes the recent amendments to the relevant articles in the Rwandan Penal Code that would make it permissible for a woman to procure a safe abortion if she becomes pregnant because of incest, rape, forced marriage or if the pregnancy threatens the health of the unborn baby or the pregnant woman. This is in line with Article 14 (2) (c) of the Protocol, to which Rwanda acceded in June 2004. In this Article the Protocol compels African Union member states to “protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.”
Despite this good news, the Rwandan Penal Code unfortunately stipulates that exemption from criminal liability shall be permitted only if the woman seeking safe abortion services obtains a court order followed by approval from two doctors. Cases such as rape and incest are rarely reported due to societal stigma and therefore rarely reach the courts. This condition will effectively make it impossible or very difficult for women, in particular poor and rural women, to obtain medical abortions even under the permissible conditions. In addition, Article 165 of the Penal Code allows only doctors to perform safe abortions under the prescribed conditions. Given the shortage of doctors in Rwanda, the law should allow for mid-level providers such as nurses and midwives to provide these services as well.
Women in sub-Saharan Africa have a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy and childbirth as compared to a 1 in 4000 risk in developed countries. Almost all the causes of maternal deaths in Africa are preventable, including from unsafe abortion. Research shows that unsafe abortion contributes about 14% of maternal deaths in Africa. This means that every day almost 100 women and girls die from unsafe abortions, and almost 60 percent of these deaths are women and girls under age 25 (WHO, 2007). Research also shows that restrictive abortion laws do not reduce incidences of abortion, but rather put women’s lives at risk when they result to unsafe or “back alley” abortions.
To make progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5 on maternal health, and comprehensively address the crisis of preventable maternal deaths in Africa, governments have the responsibility to address the issue of unsafe abortion. African Health Ministers acknowledged this when they adopted the Maputo Plan of Action for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in 2006, and its extension in 2010, which identifies unsafe abortion as one of the nine key areas for action.
It is in this light that we urge His Excellency President Kagame to remove the pre-conditions in Articles 164 and 165 of the Penal Code before signing it into law, in order to decrease the number of Rwandese women and girls dying or hospitalized daily from the tragedy of unsafe abortions, and to ensure that Rwanda is in compliance with the Protocol.
We further urge the Government and civil society of Rwanda to refer to the international, regional and national policy frameworks and research on the issue of women’s reproductive health, in their endeavours to ensure women’s access to family planning, protection from sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and access to affordable and quality health services including pre and post natal care.
We finally urge civil society organisations and faith based groups to refrain from citing culture as a reason to deny women their reproductive health rights as stipulated in the AU Protocol on the rights of women, CEDAW and other commitments that Rwanda is party to.
For Further Information Contact:
Dinah Musindarwezo
Executive Director, FEMNET
+254 20 271 2971
On behalf of the SOAWR Steering Committee
Also Endorsed By:
1. Action Canada for Population and Development
2. Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
3. Catholics for Choice, International Program
4. Center for Reproductive Rights, Africa Program
5. International Planned Parenthood Federation – Africa Region
6. International Consortium on Medical Abortion
7. Ipas Africa Alliance
8. Rutgers WPF, Netherlands
9. Rwandese Association for Family Welfare (ARBEF)
10. Sexuality Policy Watch, Brazil
11. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Switzerland
12. Astou Sylla, Senegal
13. Beverly Winikoff, M.D., M.P.H. Gynuity Health Projects, USA
14. Cevahir Özgüler, Turkey
15. Imane Belghiti, Association Nationale Al Hidn, Morrocco
16. Jacqueline Sylvie Ndongmo, Cameroon
17. Mindy Jane Roseman, J.D., Ph.D. Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School
18. Sally Chiwama, Zambia
19. Souad Belaazi, Tunisia

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