The New Times (Kigali)

24 May 2012

Rwanda: Penal Code Is More Than Just the Abortion Clause

Photo: United Nations Development Programme
Une femme enceinte

Every one seems to be up in arms about article 165 of the draft penal code, which addresses the controversial issue of abortion. The article stipulates that there is no criminal liability for a woman who causes her own abortion and a medical doctor who helps a woman to abort provided that certain conditions are met.

We have been thrown into a dodgy chess board as attention moves from the entire Penal Code, and reduced to one issue - abortion.

Article 165 of the draft Penal Code stipulates that there is no criminal liability for a woman who causes her own abortion and a medical doctor who helps a woman to abort provided that the following conditions are met.

The conditions include; when a woman is pregnant as a result of rape, forced marriage, incest in the second degree and when continuation of pregnancy jeopardizes the health of the unborn baby or that of the pregnant woman.

The penalty for abortion without being under the above exceptions is imprisonment and paying fines. The years of imprisonment, however, vary depending on a number of circumstances.

Resultant events early this year resembled the proverbial headless chicken as the draft Penal Code left Parliament to Village Urugwiro.

After religious leaders had addressed the media, on the matter, the civil society platform also hastily called a news conference, where they announced that they had petitioned the President.

But there was clear confusion at a news conference called by the civil society, as they squabbled over adopting a common position on the matter.

When they announced their opposition stance, another faction told reporters on the sidelines that they had no problem with the abortion clause.

Indeed observers said the civil society was trying to save face after being relegated to sidelines due to the speed at which things were moving.

Its late involvement in the debate only fuelled criticism that the civil society platform was getting involved only after other actors had taken up the initiative.

In the Catholic Church, it would be the wildest of imaginations to think that the institution would accept abortion. No matter what circumstance.

Change of tactic?

Religious leaders, civil society and lately the Solidarity for African Women's Rights Coalition (SOAWR), a pan African coalition of 40 organisations in 20 countries, have all appealed to the President over the matter.

Commenting on the discussion with the President, Bishop Smaragde Mbonyintege, head of the Rwanda Episcopal Conference (CEPR) - who led a delegation of religious leaders to Village Urugwiro - said he was pleased that President Kagame had responded positively to their request for dialogue on the issue of abortion.

However, some members of his delegation said they came out of the meeting without securing a concession from the government.

"It was not clear at the meeting, but we shall leave it to him to decide whether to sign the Penal Code or not," one of the religious leaders said on condition of anonymity.

The Minister of Local Government, James Musoni, told the media that the government was committed to protecting lives.

Some religious leaders have even called for a referendum on the matter.

While the subject is certainly important, you fail to understand why there is a hullabaloo over abortion. First, it's on record that 60,000 abortions are carried out annually in the country yet it's illegal, [according to a recent study].

Diversion

The Penal Code encompasses so many aspects of national importance, however, because the MPs proposed that abortion should be punished unless in special cases, the limelight moved from the entire Penal Code to abortion.

For instance, no one talks about criminalising defamation anymore!

There is really no urgency in asking the government not to criminalise abortion. Or not to provide for special circumstances under which it can be permitted.

It seems those opposed to the clause in its current form are doing it out of misunderstanding.

The penal code as a whole seems to be unknown, so much so that some activists do not know about it at all. A highly placed member of the civil society platform who talked The New Times last week sounded completely ignorant of the whole Penal Code.

"I'm not aware of any particular clause apart from that about abortion," the official said, adding that what he knows is that the government wanted to legalise abortion.

Other clauses

Article 116: Punishment of the crime of genocide negationism and revisionism. It states that any person who publicly shows, by their words, writings, images, or by any other means, that they negate the genocide committed, rudely minimises it or attempts to justify or approve its grounds, or any person who hides or destroys its evidence shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of ten (10) to fifteen (15) years.

If the crimes mentioned in the preceding paragraph are committed by an association or a political organisation, its dissolution shall be pronounced.

Article 135: Punishment of the crime of genocide ideology. This stipulates that any person who commits the crime of genocide ideology shall be liable to a term of imprisonment between five years to nine years and a fine of hundred thousand to one million Rwandan francs.

A specific law shall provide for the details related to genocide ideology.

Article 191: Penalty for child defilement. This article says that any person who commits child defilement, shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of 20 years to 25 years.

Article 276: Penalty for defamation and harassment

Any person who defames or harasses another person on the basis of sex with intent to humiliate them or their work shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of at least two months but not more than six months, and a fine of 200,000 to 500,000 Rwandan francs or one of these penalties.

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