Written by Dr. Aflodis Kagaba, Health Development Initiative-Rwanda (HDI)
In the process of advocating for the removal of legal barriers to accessing safe abortion, HDI struggled to get the support of women-led organizations and other SRHR-focused CSOs. Many in Rwanda consider abortion as a sin and many religious groups and the media were very critical of our work. We organized a number of meetings to raise awareness and create buy-in but the progress was very slow and some organizations even refused to attend meetings to build consensus on the position paper.
HDI decided to frame the issue of safe abortion as a Sexual and reproductive health rights issue and developed a policy brief entitled: Safe Guarding the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls through the penal code amendment. The purpose of the brief was to put together evidence which could inform decision makers and other relevant stakeholders about our position.
HDI mapped individuals in the public institutions and CSOs with influence in the process of reviewing the penal code. HDI understood that political parties have influence over parliamentarians who may be willing to adopt the law. HDI therefore reached out to influential leaders from political parties with the aim of raising awareness and providing further explanation on our position. In addition, HDI identified CSOs likely to support safe abortion, reached out to youth organizations, and key media representatives, as well as individual male and female activists. We organised a series of both formal and informal meetings to raise awareness and build a coalition that would advance the need for the revision of the penal code to allow women and girls access to safe abortion.
The new law has been revised to allow exemption from criminal liability for women and girls accessing abortion in cases of rape, incest, forced marriage and defilement.
This work has also led to increased public awareness around safe abortion in Rwanda. Previously, this issue was a taboo and not a regularly debated public topic, but HDI’s advocacy efforts have helped to bring this subject to the forefront of Rwandan debate. It is now being discussed on the radio, among civil society organizations, professional organizations and we believe this will contribute to the implementation of youth-friendly programs to prevent women from dying due to unsafe abortion
We learned that with evidence, and meaningful engagement between civil society and the government, change is possible. For instance, the first day we engaged the commission in charge of reviewing the penal code, members of the commission were not welcoming and they did not show interest in our inputs, partially because they considered us as advancing a western agenda. However, HDI has regularly attended and actively contributed to sessions of the commission. This active participation allowed us to build a trust and working relationship and over time, it became evident that the Parliament was eager to listen to us.
Dr. Aflodis Kagaba is a physician and human rights advocate with over fifteen years of experience working in the non-profit sector. He currently serves as Executive Director of Health Development Initiative-Rwanda (HDI), an organization he co-founded in 2005 which promotes access to health for marginalized and vulnerable communities. At HDI, Dr. Kagaba has had the privilege of championing the advancement of sexual and reproductive health rights in Rwanda, contributed to the elaboration of a number of national health policies, and successfully led several advocacy efforts to advance health and human rights for PLWHA, women, young people and key populations.