There is a lot of change that is currently going on in Rwanda concerning reproductive rights. With a population growth rate of 2.8% Rwanda continues to be the most densely populated country in Africa, which leads to the cycle of poverty, poor health, nutrition, and education that this country has seen for so many years. In 2009 a draft bill was passed in an attempt to lower the birth rate and to change some things regarding reproductive rights. When senators got a look at this bill however, they were shocked at how poorly it had been written and sent it back saying more work needed to be put into the laws. As of right now, sterilization of the mentally and intellectually disabled, compulsory HIV/AIDS testing, and abortion are under heavy debate.
Despite the fact that the Rwandan Constitution gives equal rights to all, article 22 of the new reproductive rights bill states that “the Government shall have the obligation to suspend fertility for mentally handicapped people.” This means if you are mentally ill or have other illnesses the government sees as a handicap, the government has the right to make you sterile. As advocates stated, the bill is not only a HUGE breach of human rights, but it also doesn’t take into account that mental illness and other handicaps are not necessarily hereditary. Also the bill does not state what “other handicaps” mean, so how much power is the government really taking over women by passing this law?
Rwanda, like many countries in Africa, has a large population of people infected with HIV/AIDS, in 2007 this population was 150,000. While they have been implementing programs to give antiretroviral drugs and preventative treatments the bill seems to be undermining all of this. Articles 13 and 17 of the new bill discuss topics on HIV/AIDS that several people have found conflicting. While testing for this illness is something health professionals have stressed as an important tool for prevention and awareness, the bill states that all people looking to get married must get tested before hand and must show the results to their future spouse. It also states that if a doctor feels the need to test a child and they test positive they must tell a parent or care giver. While both of these may seem like an obvious choice, having the government take away the voluntariness and the confidentiality of HIV/AIDS patients is yet again seen as a break of human and reproductive rights.
The final topic under debate is Abortion, which is currently illegal in Rwanda. Article 28 however sets up the first positive part of this bill. It states that “Voluntary abortion as one of contraceptive measures shall be prohibited.” It goes on however to say that it must be approved by three doctors and can only be implemented if the pregnancy “may has a serious impact on the mother’s life.” Since pregnancy always has a serious impact on any woman’s life, it seems that the only struggle to this bill would be the three doctors part. If lawmakers could edit this, it would seem clear that legal abortion might be on the table for Rwanda.
Anyone looking at this bill from a feminist perspective would most likely explode with frustration. Since Rwanda has such a high birth rate and such devastating poverty it is clear that some action must be made. This bill however, seems to be taking steps backwards on both reproductive and human rights. While giving woman the choice of an abortion seems like a move in the right direction, taking away mentally and intellectually disabled woman’s right to have children seems like a polar opposite. We can only hope that by the senate giving the bill back, drastic changes will be made to protect women's reproductive rights.
Questions to consider:
What is your opinion on sterilization based on mental illness or intellectual disabilities?
Do you feel HIV/AIDS testing should be mandatory given how prevalent it is in this population?
What are some changes that could be made to the bill that would HELP enhance women’s reproductive rights in Rwanda?
Do you think there are any other laws that could be added to protect reproductive rights?
Posted by Rory Sheble-Hall