Anne wanted only to get the education that would be the path to a better life. Instead she wound up in a prison in Rwanda, where women have for years been victims of extreme abortion laws.
Today, Rwanda stands on the brink of transformation, and its women poised to reclaim a measure of the equality and dignity lost to discrimination. The country’s legislature has, to an extent, removed criminal penalties for abortion in the case of rape, incest, forced marriage, and to preserve the life or health of a woman. The Center joined Rwandan advocates in calling on President Paul Kagame to sign the revised penal code into law. We tempered our praise for the new legislation, though, with concerns about some of the legislation’s limitations, urging the government to think of this as only a first step toward total reform.
Anne’s story demonstrates the oppression Rwandan women live under as well as the extreme culture of hostility that they face every day. She was only 17 when she faced a horrifying choice: She could get the books and education materials to continue her studies as long as she was willing to have sex with the teacher that controlled access to them.
Anne chose her education, despite what she’d have to endure to get it. Like many Rwandan girls and young women, she had little in the way of schooling on sexuality and pregnancy prevention. She didn’t understand contraception and quickly became pregnant, which led to her getting expelled from school. She opted to have an abortion. When her brother found out, he reported his own sister to the police. (It is, in fact, quite common in Rwanda for family members to report relatives to the police for abortion.) Today, she’s in the middle of a nine-year prison sentence.
It’s too soon to say whether the new criminal code will affect Anne. The revised code does nothing to address the situation of women and girls already in prison. And some criminal penalties remain for obtaining an abortion or providing the service. And the revised code still doesn’t make it easy to obtain an exception as it requires women to prove how they became pregnant. Women have to get a court to certify that the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, or forced marriage. This can take too much time and require too much money, especially in a situation when time is of the essence.
A second provision further dims the impact of this otherwise important legislation. These newly legal abortions must be performed by a medical doctor, with written consent from another doctor, even though it is common practice for nurses and clinic officers to safely provide first-trimester abortions. Requiring consultation from an additional doctor can result in serious delays for women who need a procedure in a timely manner. ,
Radical transformations are rare in the reproductive rights arena. As much as we want all women to exercise total reproductive autonomy today, we take every incremental change, like this one in Rwanda, and immediately seek out ways to build on it. It will be a great day for Rwandan women if President Kagame signs the new penal code into law, but it will only be the start. Women should never end up in handcuffs because they envision a different, better kind of life. The Center is already building the case to make that a reality.