Opinion: Why current penal provisions on abortion need an urgent review

By Francis Byaruhanga

Francis Byaruhanga

When I think about how a woman who has conceived and wants to abort (an embryo) for various reasons, including saving her life, has to first present a legal document allowing her to have abortion, it makes me question the provision of the penal code in terms of protecting woman’s rights.

The issue lies nowhere else but the strick legislation itself. Article 165 of the penal code in Rwanda legalises abortion, but on the exception of woman who wants to abort to be allowed to do so.

The same article allows abortion on only rape cases, forced marriage, incest and when it could be dangerous to the health of the baby or the mother.

But, such provision is allowed only if a woman who seeks abortion submits to the doctor an order issued by the competent Court recognising one of the cases under these situations, or when it is proven to the Court by a person charged of abortion.

Some times, the woman or girl who wants abortion on demand, gets such legal documents after giving birth, because of the process involved.

So, what if that female individual were a vulnerable house help who was impregnated, yet has no means to raise the child; or a mother whose life were at risk because of the delivery of the child, or simply, a sex worker exposing herself to sexual intercourse to earn their living?

Also, a woman might realise that they would deliver a child affected by incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, which will be a burden to them along their entire lifetime. As a result, she decides to abort ‘the fertilised egg’ before developing into ‘a  living creature on earth’.

It is against this background, and owing to the interests of women’s rights on their bodies, including abortion, that there is a need to speed u the reviewiew the strict penal provisions so that women could enjoy and exercise full liberties on abortion without complexities.

Earlier last year parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender plenary held a meeting on women’s rights to abort. The legislators expressed a specific concern on whether the minor girls should also seek court orders to abort when the act itself is categorised as defilement.

During the same session, the lawmakers agreed that the penal code needs a law on abortion. Their resolution informed a revision of the penal code so that it could meet continental standards.

Back in 2012, the conditions like rape, incest in the second degree, forced marriage and pregnancy threat to mother’s physical health under which abortions could be performed, were included in the penal code of 02/05/2012 amid strict cultural and religious settings that were making reproductive health issues sacred in the society.

Furthermore, the Government increased substantial efforts in reducing maternal death and affirmed its commitment to promoting and respecting women’s rights by adopting different policies and ratifying various human rights instruments like Maputo Protocol.

Nevertheless, there are still efforts required to make abortion simplified in the process of making it broader for the interests of the women who want to abort and speed up the review of penal code for the interests of mothers and their bodies.

This issue does not only concern the government and parliamentarians, but also the civil society in steering the campaign to this end.

Numerous local Non-Governmental organisations do exist with the concerned activities and they have the capabilities to campaign the process of having the softer laws that enables abortion without complications.

Keeping government on alert by those organizations through awareness on the rights of the women and their body’s and sharing experiences on the protection and advocacy from NGOs could influence the review of the law process effectively.

Simplification of mechanisms in the current penal code like medical certifications, decriminalising abortion, ways to provide consent for the minors and incapables to abort when they are in conflicts with their guardians would be the main target of the campaign to revisit the penal code in question.

From a legal point of view, and human rights concern, denying a woman a safe abortion indirectly or directly is akin to denying them rights to health and other rights like right to abortion, and right to liberty.

Article 162 of the Penal Code punishes self-induced abortion with a term of imprisonment of one to three years and a fine of Rwf50, 000 to Rwf200,000.


The writer is a journalist and internee advocate.

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Elias Hakizimana

Elias Hakizimana, CEO&Founder of The Inspirer Ltd,(www.rwandainspirer.com) is a professional Rwandan Journalist with Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Communication, received from University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) in 2014. He served various media houses in Rwanda including Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) in 2013 and became passionate with English Online and Print Media Publications where he exercised his talent as a Freelance News Reporter for The New Times, The Independent, The Rwanda Focus, Panorama and more before he became a Self-Entrepreneur as the CEO and Founder of The Inspirer Limited in early 2017.

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