Sexual and reproductive health activists have cited religious beliefs as some of the barriers that stand in the way of obtaining safe abortions and implementing abortion law, affecting many people, especially young people.
This was highlighted during a weekly show on the national broadcaster which is dubbed The place which aired on Wednesday, December 1 and featured as panelists Dr. Aflodis Kagaba, Executive Director of the Health Development Initiative (HDI), Chantal Umuhoza, Gender Activist and Dr. Eugene Ngoga, President of the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Rwanda.
The conversation revolved around the ministerial decree on abortion which was approved by the cabinet in 2019, but the journey to draft it had begun a decade ago when the penal code was being drafted in 2009.
According to the Ministerial Order, some of the conditions under which a safe abortion can be obtained, who can do it and where it can be done.
Highlighting some of the challenges in the implementation of this instrument, Kagaba indicated that there are religious leaders who still do not want to follow the narrative, which he says does not provide any solution.
“But in any circumstance, if a woman wants to have an abortion, nothing can prevent it. She may even use dangerous traditional means that may end up ending her life,” he said.
Each year, more than 24,000 women seek emergency medical treatment following unsafe abortions, according to Health Ministry statistics.
“In recent years, some people boycotted our meetings just because there was a topic on abortion, and we had to rename it to sexual and reproductive health. This even includes our female-dominated parliament. When the abortion bill was passed, 7 women categorically denied the law,” Kagaba recalled, adding that many cite religious beliefs that make the subject taboo.
Umuhoza warned that some religious people have assumed the position of God to judge mankind.
“It is indeed a big problem because I have been attacked several times, but for the clerics, if you think it is a sin, do not become God, do not become the judge. Let God decide and let others save lives,” she said, in favor of early contraception as a way to prevent more abortions.
Charles Haba, one of the talk show’s resident panelists, then called on religious and faith-based organizations to sit around a roundtable and join the journey of activists in addressing sexual and reproductive health issues.
“Religious leaders need to understand that young people have more sex than married couples. So, are they going to change that overnight? But the sooner they agree to face this reality, the better the problem will be solved because it is a reality that we all have to face,” he said.
We encounter more cases of teenage pregnancy in rural and remote areas, Haba added, so this is not a third world problem, teaching us not to strain medically or politically.
Dr. Ngoga also welcomed the approval of this ministerial order, citing that it gave doctors the legal possibility to save lives, support and help patients who often needed abortions.
The lack of safe means of abortion often leads to teenage pregnancies.
Ministry of Health figures indicate that 17,849 teenage pregnancies were recorded in 2016 and increased to 17,337 in 2017.
The numbers rose to 19,832 in 2018 and reached 23,628 in 2019 but fell slightly in 2020 to 19,701 cases.
The Rwanda Investigation Bureau also reported arresting 4,452 sex offenders between 2020 and early 2021.