NAIROBI, Sept 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost one in four women in several Rwandan jails are serving time for illegal abortions, many of them rape survivors who should be able to get safe terminations under the central African country's law, two advocacy groups said.
Rwanda's 2012 penal code allows abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape, incest and forced marriage or when the health of the woman or foetus is at risk.
But most jailed women, many of them young and poor, are unaware of the law or cannot meet its "excessively burdensome" requirements, Rwanda's Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD) and U.S.-based IPAS said in a report this week.
Under the law, a judge's approval is required for an abortion, which can only be performed by a doctor. When on health grounds, two doctors must also give written approval.
"The young and the poor end up in jail because most of the young girls had little knowledge about contraceptives... (and) no one was able to get a lawyer because they were not able to pay," Tom Mulisa, GLIHD's executive director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Rwanda.
The researchers found that 24 percent of 1,306 female prisoners in five Rwandan jails, some serving 15-year sentences, were charged with illegal abortions.
Rwanda's minister of gender and family promotion, Oda Gasinzigwa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone that the law must be respected.
"We are not happy about any jailed woman," she said. "We want free women undertaking income-generating activities."
The 2012 amendments to Rwanda's abortion law were publicly debated, she said, but further changes could be discussed.
"This is a country of freedom of speech," she said.
Every one of the 20 female prisoners interviewed in the report were arrested after seeking emergency medical help from neighbours or healthcare workers who then reported them to the police, the study said.
Rwandan women have five children on average, according to government statistics, and almost half of pregnancies are unintended, the World Health Organization says.
Women often induce abortions by swallowing a cocktail of pills or herbs, or use a stick to rupture the membrane around the pregnancy.
One student cited in the report took a tablet, given to her by the man who impregnated her, in her school bathroom.
"After giving it to me, he disappeared," she was quoted as saying. "I swallowed the tablet and got a miscarriage."
The school administration reported her to the police.
She was only jailed for one year because she was 17 when she got pregnant, which is below the age of consent in Rwanda.
Mulisa, from GLIHD which provides legal aid to rape survivors seeking abortion, said underage girls should not be prosecuted.
"Why should there be a case?" he asked. "Of course... (it) is a rape because under 18 there is no consent."
Courts usually do not issue abortion orders until the offender has been convicted, Mulisa said.
In one case handled by GLIHD, a pregnant 14-year-old was unable to get a court order for an abortion until she was eight months pregnant because the offender could not be found.
Although the judge ordered a termination, doctors said it would have endangered her life. She has since given birth.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Additional reporting by Clement Uwiringiyimana in Kigali; Editing by Katie Nguyen (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org))
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