BY Chantal Umuhoza
2018 marks exactly 10 years since I embarked on this passionate and challenging journey to raise my voice and advocate for women and girls access to safe and legal abortion, wherever I am. It started in 2008 when I was a youth volunteer for an organization that worked on sexual and reproductive health in Rwanda. My journey took shape when in 2009 I was attending an international youth workshop in the Netherlands, organized by Rutgers WPF to discuss the ‘Grey areas of Sexual and reproductive health and rights’ along with other young people from five countries in Asia and Africa. Sexual violence, sexual diversity, and abortion were the focus of the workshop. At the end of the workshop, each national group was supposed to agree on one topic of interest that they wanted to focus on and develop a project to be implemented at the national level. I knew for sure I was going to work on abortion. It felt like it was my calling. Five other Rwandan young people and I attending the workshop had long discussions. They wanted to focus on sexual violence because it wasn’t as ‘controversial’ while I argued the case for abortion advocacy. At the time, abortion was still criminalized in Rwanda, as it had been since 1977, with the only exception being to save the life of a mother. Rwanda had signed the African charter on women’s rights (Maputo protocol) with a reservation on article 14, 2.c that called on states to decriminalize abortion in certain cases. No one talked about abortion; not SRHR organizations, not women’s rights organizations, it was an untouched issue in the country. Sexuality in general was a taboo topic and abortion was considered by many, the most taboo.
My colleagues didn’t see how we could successfully advocate for abortion because they were not confident talking about it openly but I was able to convince them. I was going to be the face of the advocacy, the one who would be talking at public events. I have always considered abortion to be normal. Like most Rwandans,I was baptized in the Catholic faith and I grew up practicing different religious beliefs. But to me it was never a basis to deny any woman or girl their own right to decide on an issue that was so central to their lives. I found it wrong that the decision was anyone but their own to make.
I grew up seeing girls I knew, including close relatives, face unwanted pregnancies, shunned by society, to the point where it affected their life and their dreams. I knew it wasn’t their fault but that of a society that failed to equip them with knowledge and provide them with services to ensure they could take charge of their sexuality without being affected by it. When I was attending University, I heard of a girl who was convicted and imprisoned for five years for inducing her abortion. She is a Genocide survivor and had siblings to take care of. She had one year left to complete university.
The stories of girls, including my own sister, facing unwanted pregnancies triggered my passion to work on abortion. But mostly, it was my sister’s story and that of the girl imprisoned for five years that made me push hard to convince my Rwandan colleagues at the workshop to agree to work on an abortion advocacy project. I knew there were many other girls like them and I felt it was my life mission to speak up on this issue, no matter how taboo it was.
The project involved collecting and sharing personal stories of girls in prison who were convicted of induced abortions. The goal was to break the silence on the topic of abortion in Rwanda and to raise awareness on how the punitive law affected women and girls. I met and interviewed the girl from University in one of the prisons and I was privileged to learn about her story and how she decided to have an abortion. She remains at the back of mind in my advocacy work. I always remember how she had been brave enough to stand up and be in school after being affected by the Genocide, how she had to take care of her siblings and how a discriminatory law robbed her of her dreams to complete school, find a job and take care of her siblings. I always wonder where her siblings ended after she was imprisoned. Today, for my sister and this girl, I bravely accept criticism from media and the general public when I speak of abortion.
Following this advocacy project, I have never been able to remain silent, in Rwanda, at regional levels at African Union meetings and at the Global level in UN meetings. I continue to call for decriminalization of abortion in Rwanda and elsewhere and I don’t plan to stop because abortion is normal.
The project that was initiated from my determination to speak up when no one else wanted to speak on a taboo topic has for sure sparked change, more advocacy on abortion, and it has encouraged some organizations to work on advocacy for safe abortion. It greatly contributed to Rwanda’s lifting of the reservation on Maputo protocol article 14, 2c and to abortion law reforms in 2012 and in 2017. I deeply hold that all other discriminations against women and girls can be removed but as long as they don’t have a say on their own bodies, they remain greatly disadvantaged and that’s why I stay committed to this cause.
1. Catholic for choice/Conscience magazine: Rwanda: Where abortion can lead to prison: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/S0968-8080%2813%2941690-7
2. IPAS: When abortion is a crime: http://www.ipas.org/en/Resources/Ipas%20Publications/When-abortion-is-a-crime–Rwanda.aspx
3. Youtube video speaking with Philippines safe abortion network:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NojexJhP9Y
4. Speaking on the side-event Abortion Stigma, Criminalization and Restrictive Laws and Policies during the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b48QyY_UHss
5. UN CSW 61 side event at the Netherlands Mission in New York held on March 20, 2017 on “advancing safe abortion advocacy in restrictive settings”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jA5TGTlJu0
6. Guardian article on my work on access to safe abortion: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jun/22/rwanda-sexual-health-abortion