Rwanda: Religious Beliefs Impede Safe Abortion - Activists

Hospital beds (file photo).
2 December 2021

Sexual and reproductive health activists have cited religious beliefs as some of the barriers that impede the procurement of safe abortion and the implementation of the law on abortion, affecting many, especially the youth.

This was highlighted during a weekly show on the national broadcaster which is dubbed The Square which aired on Wednesday December 1 and featured as panelists Dr. Aflodis Kagaba, the Executive Director of Health Development Initiative (HDI), Chantal Umuhoza, a gender activist and Dr. Eugene Ngoga, the president of Rwanda Obstetrician and Gynecologists Association.

The conversation revolved around the abortion ministerial order which was approved by the cabinet in 2019, but the journey to draft it had started ten years back when the penal code was being drafted in 2009.

According to the ministerial order, some of the conditions in which safe abortion can be procured, who can do it and where it can be done.

Highlighting some of the challenges in implementing this instrument however, Kagaba indicated that there are some religious leaders who still do not want to go with the narrative, which he says provides no solution at all.

"But in whichever circumstance, if a woman wants to abort, nothing can stand in her way. She can even use unsafe traditional means which can end up terminating her life," he said.

Every year, over 24,000 women seek emergent medical treatment resulting from unsafe abortions, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health.

"In recent years, some people were boycotting our meetings simply because there was a topic on abortion, and we had to rebrand it to sexual reproductive health. This even includes our women-dominated parliament. During the passing of the abortion bill, 7 women categorically denied the law," Kagaba recalled, adding that many cite religious beliefs which make the subject taboo.

Umuhoza warned that some clerics have assumed the position of God to judge mankind.

"It is indeed a big issue because I have been attacked several times, but for clergymen, if you think that is sin, don't become God, don't become the judge. Leave it for God to decide and let others save lives," she said, rooting for early contraception as a way to prevent more abortion cases.

Charles Haba one of the resident panelists for the talk-show then called for the religious and faith-based organisations to sit on a round table and join the activists' path to address the Sexual Reproductive Health issues.

"Religious leaders must understand that the youth are having more sex than married couples. So, are they going to change that overnight? But the sooner they agree to confront this reality, the better the issue will be addressed because this is a fact of life that we all have to confront," he said.

We are experiencing more teenage pregnancy cases in rural and remote areas, added Haba, so this is not an issue of the third world, teaching us that we should not tire medically or politically.

Dr Ngoga also hailed the approval of this ministerial order, citing that it gave legal opportunities to medical doctors to save lives, support and come to the rescue of the patients who were often in need of abortion.

Lack of safe means of abortion often lead to teenage pregnancies.

Figures from the Ministry of Health indicate that 17,849 teen pregnancies were recorded in 2016 and scaled up to 17,337 in 2017.

The figures increased to 19,832 in 2018 and reached 23,628 in 2019 but slightly dropped in 2020 to 19,701 cases.

Rwanda Investigation Bureau also reported having arrested 4,452 sex offenders between 2020 and early 2021.

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