Sentencing teenagers to long prison terms for abortion amounts to structural violence

Monday April 15 2019


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On April 3, a released statement following a Cabinet meeting said that President Paul Kagame had pardoned 367 girls and women who had been convicted of abortion and were serving various prison sentences.

Two days later, on April 6, the deeper meaning of this pardon was revealed to me courtesy of a testimony from one of the beneficiaries of this noble act. This testimony, together with the conversations I had that day with social justice experts taught me how some of our laws and the justice system, despite progress, are still embedded with structural unfairness that need to be addressed if gender equality is to be fully achieved and lawful injustice banished.

I listened to the testimony on the radio while driving to a luncheon hosted by Canada’s Governor-General who was in Rwanda to attend the 25th Commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi. On the radio, one of the convicts who had benefited from the pardon was talking about the circumstances of her abortion and mentioned that she had already served 21 years in prison and doesn’t know where to go if finally released because, in her words, “A lot has changed since my imprisonment.”

She said that when she aborted 21 years ago, she was only 18 years and on conviction, she was handed a life sentence because the abortion was judged to have ended the life of her baby.

This testimony got me thinking about justice, the fairness of our judicial system and its ability to deliver justice and the relationship between our bodies and the state.

What type of justice is it when an 18 year old child is imprisoned for life for abortion? Did the boy/man who impregnated her also get a prison sentence? What’s in the mind of those who make such laws and prosecutors who recommend such prison terms? How about judges that hand out such sentences?

Before I could find answers to any of these questions, I arrived at the luncheon venue. I was seated between some human rights activists, a youthful Canadian Rwandan and a Canadian MP.

After exchanging pleasantries, our conversation settled on the meaning of the 25th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi; healing; the gap between the genocide generation and its aftermath as well as what could be done to ensure never again.

One of the members on the table talked about the importance of social justice and dealing with structural violence.

To him, genocide was possible, in part, because of normalising discrimination and injustice against Tutsi. Of course, besides structural conditions, genocide is explained by an ideology that certain people don’t deserve to live either due to how they were born or their beliefs. But structural factors are critical to sustaining an unfair, unequal, and gendered societies.

I also shared the story of abortion and the testimony of the 18-year-old girl. After listening attentively, my colleagues agreed that what the teenage girl and her peers face is structural violence.

Structural violence refers to how individuals and some social group’s life chances are unnecessarily crippled by avoidable workings of different social institutions and norms and, in the process limiting their ability to fend for themselves.

Such norms include laws that are adopted not in the interest of protecting society from harm, but preserving domination of one gender over another and punishing female bodies for deviating from puritanical beliefs of the Church and our patriarchal society.

For example, the law that sends girls and women to prison to serve long prison sentences for abortion while leaving those who impregnated them free to roam is not merely unfair but serves to keep women under the thump of men who are at the pinnacle of the patriarchal super structure.

Thus, the testimony convinced me that while great progress has been made in empowering women and protecting children, our society still serves our girls and women poorly in many other ways.

And while the pardoning of 367 women and girls should be applauded, we should keep in mind that many more are still in prison for the same crime.

As The Chronicles reported on April 4, “A study done in 2015 by ... the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development showed there were 7,300 women in prison  over abortion” and “This number does not include their accomplices” and “the study done in all Rwanda’s jails showed that nearly all the victims were below the age of 25 years.”

Most of these women were convicted under the old puritanical penal code which has been reviewed; but even the new one still criminalises abortion. The best way to deal with and banish unwanted pregnancies isn’t punishing abortion with prison and shame, but education in formal spaces like schools, churches, and informal spaces like homes.

The same approach can be taken to curb the reported rampant teen-pregnancies; for these are a consequence of failing parenting and education; not lack of prisons.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: ckayumba@; twitter account: @Ckayumba