Valentine's case: a story about criminalization of abortion in Rwanda

In April 2019, the President of Rwanda granted a presidential pardon to 367 women and girls jailed for the offenses of abortion, complicity in abortion and infanticide. Valentine was one of these women.

  • Country: Rwanda
  • Date: 05/04/2019
Valentine's case: a story about criminalization of abortion in Rwanda

On June 10, 2014, Valentine went to the hospital for a checkup as she was suffering from stomach pains. The doctor examined her and told her that she was about to give birth. She was taken to the maternity ward, given an injection and given a prescription for medicine to buy from the pharmacy. As she had no money to buy the medicine or even to pay the hospital bill, she went home. There, she continued to experience stomach pains and subsequently started having contractions. She gave birth on her own and, due to complications during the delivery, the baby died.

The village authorities received information that Valentine, who had been visibly pregnant some days before, was no longer showing signs of pregnancy and had not been seen with a baby. The Village chief asked her about it and she stated that she had suffered a miscarriage. She was then arrested by the police and after being interviewed, she was charged with the crime of infanticide.

In November 2014, Valentine was taken to court. The case was heard at first instance by an intermediate court. Valentine pled not guilty to the charge of infanticide and again stated that she had suffered a miscarriage. Despite the severity of the charges she faced, Valentine was not provided with legal representation either during her interrogation by the police and the prosecution, or during the trial itself. Following this hearing, the Court sentenced her to life imprisonment.

She subsequently appealed to the High Court; however, she changed her plea to guilty. Once again, Valentine was not provided with legal representation and as such was made to represent herself. She said that she had been afraid to tell the truth before and stated she was sorry for committing this crime. She begged the court for leniency, stating that she had not intended to commit this offense, but that she had been forced to do so due to her situation. Despite her statement, the High Court upheld the judgment of the Intermediate Court.

Following this, Valentine appealed her case to the Supreme Court, asking for leniency.

What was Women’s Link’s role in this case?

The Supreme Court of Rwanda called Women’s Link to provide expert testimony as an international human rights organization working to promote social change through the courts to advance women’s and girls’ rights.

In our submissions, we outlined context relevant to the criminalization of women and girls for lack of access to health care and for acts related to their reproductive functions. A friend of the court (amicus curiae) offers specialized legal knowledge on particular issues, which assists the court in the determination of a matter before it. We presented submissions which outlined international human rights law standards and State obligations on the right to health and on the right to a fair trial. Further, Women's Link applied a gender analysis to show how the State's failure to consider the barriers faced by marginalized women and girls when attempting to access their rights to health and justice results in further discrimination and the violation of their rights.

The Supreme Court of Rwanda ruled to reduce Valentine’s sentence from life imprisonment to ten years on June 1, 2018.

Why does this Court decision matter?

  • This decision is particularly important for women and girls at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, who not only face more barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health services, but who are also more likely to be blamed and prosecuted when their pregnancies result in negative outcomes like a miscarriage or a stillbirth.
  • This is the first time the Supreme Court of Rwanda has accepted and utilized amicus curiae on a case concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • In this judgment, the Supreme Court has set an important precedent by pronouncing that the social conditions under which women and girls live ought to be considered when examining pregnancy-related crimes. The Court recognized that the specific circumstances which should have been considered in this particular case, in fact, apply to many other women in similar situations. The ruling is a vital first step in acknowledging that even a strong legal framework on women's and girls' health does not necessarily protect vulnerable women from discrimination in practice.
  • The Supreme Court emphasized the importance of guaranteeing the right to legal representation particularly for crimes with severe punishment. The Court called on officials within the justice system to make women aware of their rights to legal services from the very beginning.

About the presidential pardon

In April 2019, the President of Rwanda granted a presidential pardon to 367 women and girls jailed for the offenses of abortion, complicity in abortion and infanticide. Valentine was one of these women.

In a huge step forward for women’s rights in Rwanda, this pardon acknowledges the injustice of criminalizing poor women who don’t have access to proper medical care. This is an opportunity to examine the problems faced by women and girls, especially those in vulnerable situations, when they are attempting to access sexual and reproductive health services; as well as the consequences on their lives when sexual and reproductive health services are denied. There is still a lot of work to do. Every day, 830 women die due to preventable pregnancy-related complications worldwide. 534 women die in Africa, and of those, 175 die in East Africa. Moreover, according to a report from the Health Development Initiative (HDI), approximately 24% of all incarcerated women in Rwanda were convicted for obtaining an abortion or for infanticide.

This is an important issue globally and it happens in other regions and countries in the world, for example in El Salvador. There is a need to work to ensure that public policies and judges take in to account the reality faced by women and girls to improve the sexual and reproductive rights services and avoid the criminalization.

While the criminal justice system is allowed to intervene in cases concerning women’s reproductive health, women and girls across the world will continue to suffer miscarriages of justice. Women’s health is a human rights consideration, and women and girls have a right to access affordable and safe reproductive health services. If we are to ensure that women and girls are able to enjoy their rights, we need doctors and judges who understand that a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services can lead to miscarriages, premature births and home births with complications, and who do not seek to criminalize women for suffering obstetric emergencies.

About Women's Link Worldwide

Women’s Link Worldwide is an international organization which uses the power of the law to promote a social change which promotes the rights of women and girls, especially those facing multiple forms of discrimination.

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