Rwandan legislature recently approved a bill legalising abortion in cases of rape, forced marriage or incest. The government hails the move as the promotion of women's rights. Churches see it as a violation of the fundamental right to life. Abortion remains a sensitive issue in a country still recovering from the 1994 genocide.
Some Rwandan women would like abortion to be legalised altogether.
Take Marianne Irankunda. "We've waited long enough," says the young student. "Let's not fool ourselves; abortion is widely practised in the country, even in rural areas. It is done secretly and in extremely dangerous circumstances. Abortion should simply be legalised." She and many other Rwandan women believe a woman's right over her own body is sacred.
Abortion, a reality
Recent research shows that an estimated 60,000 abortions take place in Rwanda every year. That comes down to 25 per every 1,000 women. Summarised in the article 'Abortion incidence and postabortion care in Rwanda' published in March, the study exposes - for the first time ever - the extent of the practice within the country.
Conducted by the Rwandan health ministry in partnership with the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, the research details reasons behind abortions as well as the risks involved.
Unwanted pregnancies are cited as the main reason. The risks are many, especially since most abortions are carried out by medically unqualified parties, pharmacists using dangerous methods or even by pregnant women themselves.
Rwandan penal code currently permits abortion if a pregnancy is proven to endanger the mother's life. Yet the recent amendment for conditioned legalization is widely criticised.
In fact, various groups within Rwandan society condemn it. "Abortion is a crime like any other," says Illuminata Mukashema, a civil servant. "Legalising abortion would be legalising crime and encouraging delinquency. We will end up legalising euthanasia."
"After the genocide against the Tutsis we found the strength to abolish the death penalty," says Marie-Immaculée Ingabire an activist in the prevention of violence towards women. "We cannot undo that by legalising abortion, which is also premeditated murder of innocents. This amendment is violating the right to life enshrined in our constitution."
Ingabire adds: "I understand the psychological trauma of a woman who was raped or forced into marriage, but killing the child she is carrying would only add to her trauma. My suggestion would be to psychologically strengthen the mother in order for her to raise the child."
Edouard Munyamariza, spokesperson for the Rwandan Civil Society Platform, also denounces the law. "We raised our concerns in parliament, but they were ignored. The government is determined to enforce this law, which is not what the people need. We are now calling for a referendum to let the people decide."
Church behind the child
Rwandan religious authorities also oppose the partial legalization of abortion.
On 19 April, President Paul Kagame received a delegation of Christian church representatives. "Serious and profound discussions" took place, according to a press release by the Rwandan bishops group Conférence Episcopale du Rwanda (CEPR). "We choose the child's life and, understanding the pain of the mother whose dignity was damaged, we are committed to supporting and helping her keep the child," said CEPR president Smaragde Mbonyintege.
In Kagame's court
Meanwhile, parliament spokesperson Augustin Habimana invited the churches to be more realistic. "We must have the courage to see both sides of the coin," he said. "Let us consider a woman who is forced to have a child that she might not love. Also imagine the disgrace of a child learning it was born from rape or incest. Women should at least have the right to choose whether or not to end such pregnancies."
Now that parliament has passed the amendment, the ball is in Kagame's court. Meanwhile, many Rwandans continue to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to undergo a clandestine abortion - and all that it entails.