In an exercise of the prerogative of mercy on April 3rd, Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, granted clemency to all 367 women and girls who had been convicted and imprisoned for illegal abortions.
Like many countries, Rwanda has historically instituted extremely restrictive policies regarding abortions. Prior to a revision in 2012 and a more recent one in 2018, the law permitted abortions only out of necessity to save a woman’s life. The 2012 revision broadened the circumstances under which a woman could get an abortion, but required she obtain court and medical approval (both of which are not easily accessible) before the abortion could be carried out. In addition to all this, women faced the possibility of criminal charges if their abortion was deemed illegal. The 2018 revision of this law further expanded permitted circumstances of abortion and removed the previously required court order, making it easier and safer for women to obtain abortions. Despite this revision, it still remained that women were facing criminal charges and sentences due to abortions.
Prior to President Kagame’s decision to pardon these women, numerous feminists and organizations led advocacy efforts pushing for the decriminalization of abortion and more generally, the improvement of the sexual and reproductive rights of women in Rwanda. In January 2019, Health Development Initiative, a Rwandan NGO working on improving the accessibility and quality of healthcare for all Rwandans, published a study that provided first-hand accounts from women who had been incarcerated for illegal abortions. The purpose of the study was to document stories of unsafe abortions in order to raise awareness and to “advance policies and guidelines around safeguarding legal abortion.”
Other advocacy efforts were undertaken by Burundian activist, Judicaelle Irakoze, who wrote a heartfelt letter to President Kagame in January 2018, calling for the release of the women and girls who had been incarcerated and a revision of the law. The tweet shown below demonstrates the importance and power of using one’s platform and visibility to amplify the voices of the most vulnerable.
Although President Kagame’s clemency was an excellent show of good faith, there remains the larger issue of the criminalization of abortion. Nevertheless, his action remains a big win for Rwandan women and an important step towards allowing women to exercise full autonomy over their bodies and have access to safe abortion procedures.