Affirming the importance of women's access to safe and legal abortion, the Rwandan government has lifted its reservation to Article 14(2)(c) of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol). The Maputo Protocol is the only international treaty that explicitly guarantees the right to legal abortion. Under the Protocol, the Rwandan government is now required to "protect the reproductive rights of women by authorizing medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus."
This development comes on the heels of a significant reform to Rwanda's abortion law. The Rwandan Government recently signed into law a new penal code reducing harsh criminal penalties against women who terminate their pregnancies and doctors who perform abortions.
"Rwanda has taken a critical step forward in its efforts to respect women's fundamental reproductive and human rights by expanding the grounds upon which abortion is legally permitted," said Elisa Slattery, regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"Women who become pregnant as a result of rape, incest, or forced marriage - or whose pregnancy endangers their health - are now legally entitled to safe abortion services."
"We hope other African nations follow Rwanda's lead and affirm women's fundamental reproductive rights by ratifying the Maputo Protocol without reservations."
With the passing of the law and the removal of its reservation to the abortion provision in the Maputo Protocol, Rwanda has made significant strides in ensuring compliance with its minimum obligations under international and regional human rights law. However, Rwanda's new law still imposes barriers that could prevent women from accessing legal abortions. Under the revised law, women who are pregnant as a result of rape, forced marriage or incest and seeking an abortion must get written approval from the court first. Further, it requires that anyone performing a legal abortion be a licensed medical doctor and consult with another physician before the procedure. These can be significant barriers for women that can cost money, waste time, and dangerously delay critical health care.
Unsafe abortion is one of the most easily preventable causes of maternal mortality and Rwanda has one of the worst ratios in the world, at 340 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In June, WHO released its updated safe abortion guidance, which states that officials must create an enabling environment "to ensure that every woman who is legally eligible has ready access to safe abortion care" and remove "barriers that hinder access to and timely provision of safe abortion care." Rwanda's revised law is an important step toward reducing the number of women who die due to unsafe abortion every year.