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These Rwandan women were sent to jail for having an abortion. Now free, they speak out

These Rwandan women were imprisoned for having abortions, before they were pardoned and released in 2019. From left: Nyiramahirwe Epiphanie, 26, was sentenced to 15 years. Akingeneye Theopiste was sentenced to 10 years. Akimanizanye Florentine was sentenced to 10 years. Mushimiyimana Anjerike, 29, served more than five years for inducing an abortion using pills she says she bought at a pharmacy.
Sarah McCammon/NPR
These Rwandan women were imprisoned for having abortions, before they were pardoned and released in 2019. From left: Nyiramahirwe Epiphanie, 26, was sentenced to 15 years. Akingeneye Theopiste was sentenced to 10 years. Akimanizanye Florentine was sentenced to 10 years. Mushimiyimana Anjerike, 29, served more than five years for inducing an abortion using pills she says she bought at a pharmacy.

On the day she was attacked, Akimanizanye Florentine had been trying to earn money to help get through a difficult time at home.

Akimanizanye, who goes by Florentine, was in her late teens then, living in northern Rwanda. She says her family had been struggling after her father had died.

She remembers walking home in the evening, carrying the potatoes she'd harvested in a basket on her head, when she passed a man she'd never seen before.

"He asked me my name. I never said anything," she tells me through an interpreter. "I was just running away."

Akimanizanye Florentine, known as Florentine, says she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for inducing her own abortion after she was raped. She was pardoned by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2019 and released after serving four-and-a-half years.
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
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Sarah McCammon/NPR
Akimanizanye Florentine, known as Florentine, says she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for inducing her own abortion after she was raped. She was pardoned by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2019 and released after serving four-and-a-half years.

The man pushed her down, covered her mouth and raped her.

"And then after he left me, I stayed there almost two hours thinking of what I'm supposed to do next," she says.

Florentine, now in her late 20s, says she was afraid to tell her mother what had happened. About a month later, she missed her period.

"I totally failed to know what to do," she says. "I never talked to anyone about it. It wasn't easy for me."

She subsequently ended the pregnancy — and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating Rwanda's anti-abortion laws.

Rwanda's changing abortion laws

At a time when the United States is rolling back abortion rights, Rwanda has been gradually moving in the opposite direction. The nation began loosening its strict abortion laws in 2012, allowing the procedure to be obtained legally from a doctor under limited criteria such as rape, incest, and medically dangerous pregnancies.

The changes came in response to pressure from human rights groups, also and amid a larger effort to improve gender equity that followed the genocide which tore the country apart nearly 30 years ago. But reproductive health advocates say many women still struggle to obtain safe and legal abortions.

More recently, a ministerial order that took effect in 2019 further relaxed some of the rules, removing requirements that abortion seekers obtain a judge's approval and stating that sexual assault victims do not have to prove they've been raped in order to receive a legal abortion.

As part of this new approach, the Rwandan government since 2016 has pardoned and released more than 500 women who were incarcerated for abortion-related convictions. The government says 123 women remain incarcerated for undergoing an abortion but are likely to be released by next year.

But for those who are released, reintegration into Rwandan society remains challenging.

Stigma, shame and sexual violence

Even without a conviction for abortion, life is difficult for many unmarried girls and young women who become pregnant, says Florentine's interpreter, Uwayezu Brenda Kalungi. She's a human rights and litigation officer with HDI Rwanda, a nonprofit in Kigali focused on health access. Kalungi says many unmarried women with children face stigma and shame from their communities — including those whose pregnancies have resulted from rape.

"We have a lot of cases where families have rejected their children. They don't even want to look at them again," Kalungi says. "They say you brought shame to the family. So you become like a curse to the family."

Some women resort to inducing their own abortions without proper medical support, using concoctions of herbs or pills they're advised to take by friends or neighbors.

Florentine says she tried taking several medicines that she believed could end her pregnancy, but nothing happened. Months went by. Increasingly desperate, she heard about a local man who could sell her a grass-based mixture intended to bring about an abortion.

Within a couple of hours of drinking it, she says she began experiencing intense stomach pains and bleeding. Soon, she expelled the fetus.

She thinks the pregnancy was about five months along.

"I felt so guilty," she says. "It was hard for me to see those things."

Overcome by her guilt, Florentine says she turned herself in to local police. She says they didn't believe her at first.

"They treat me like a mad woman," she says. "Until they had to get a report from the doctor, who said that I have aborted."

Ultimately, Florentine says, she was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"It was a moment where I don't have any choice," she says. "I just accepted whatever was taking place."

That was nearly a decade ago. She went on to serve more than four years, she says, before she received a pardon from Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2019.

Some time before that release, Florentine says officials came to the prison to interview some of the women who'd been convicted of abortion-related crimes.

"They asked us why we did it, and we would explain everything to them," she says. "In the back of our mind we would think maybe they are going to do some advocacy for us to the president and maybe they would forgive us."

A "double injustice"

Florentine was one of several women brought to Kigali by HDI Rwanda — on buses and in at least one case, a motorcycle — from provinces around the country, to speak with me about their time in prison for convictions related to abortion or infanticide.

The burden of those convictions has fallen disproportionately on lower-income women, says Sengoga Christopher, director of HDI's Center for Health and Rights. For many reasons, including lack of information and access to health care, he says poor women in Rwanda are more likely to face prosecution and incarceration for abortion. They're also more likely to use unsafe methods, which he deems a "double injustice."

Sengoga, who goes by Chris because Rwandan names are often given in reverse order of Western names, says the organization has been working to find and offer assistance to hundreds of women all over the country who've been released from incarceration for abortion-related convictions as part of the effort to liberalize Rwanda's abortion laws.

He says even with the liberalization of Rwanda's abortion laws, many women still lack awareness about how to obtain safe and legal abortions, and many of the clients his organization works with are fearful of discussing abortion because of ongoing stigma.

When you can't go home

Women can still be charged with having illegal abortions if they don't meet the new legal criteria, Sengoga says. Those who've been convicted and incarcerated often face rejection from their communities when they return, Sengoga says.

"Abortion is regarded as a taboo; sexuality in Rwanda is not talked about in public discourse," he says. "Which makes everything complicated and challenging."

Mushimiyimana Anjerike, known as Anjerike, age 29, served more than five years for inducing an abortion using pills she says she bought at a pharmacy. She was pardoned by Rwanda's president and released in 2019.
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
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Sarah McCammon/NPR
Mushimiyimana Anjerike, known as Anjerike, age 29, served more than five years for inducing an abortion using pills she says she bought at a pharmacy. She was pardoned by Rwanda's president and released in 2019.

Another woman who received a pardon, Mushimiyimana Anjerike, from northern Rwanda, says it was her neighbors who made sure she went to prison for her abortion. Now 29, Anjerike was still in her late teens when she says she became pregnant and was abandoned by her boyfriend.

"We were in love, thinking that he was going to marry me," she says through the interpreter. "But after I informed him that I'm pregnant, the boy rejected me and never wanted to talk to me again.

Feeling that she would be unable to support a child alone, Anjerike says she bought pills at a local pharmacy that she'd been told would induce an abortion. She says her mother came home to find her bleeding heavily, and she told her what had happened. Her mother began shouting, loudly enough for the neighbors to hear.

Soon people began gathering at her house, demanding that she be arrested.

"All the neighbors," she said. "I was surprised that they became so many. They all came with the local leader to my home. They took me from my house; they took me to the police."

The crowd grew to dozens of people, Anjerike says, some she'd known all her life.

"There were some who were saying, 'This girl came from a poor family; I think they should forgive her.' But others are saying, 'She has done a crime. They should imprison her,' " she says. "I just stayed desperate and I didn't know what to do."

Anjerike told me she suffered two heartbreaks: first, the rejection of her boyfriend; she would have continued the pregnancy and raised the baby with him, if he'd stayed. And second, the rejection of her community.

"That thing broke my heart a lot," she says. "I'm still healing, but I still feel bad about it."

Anjerike says she served five years of a 10-year sentence before she received her pardon. Now married with a young child, she says she and her husband struggle, picking up work as they can carrying materials for builders or digging holes for farmers, to earn enough even to pay for two meals a day.

A shift away from punishing women

For Anjerike, efforts to expand access to abortion and reduce criminal penalties in Rwanda are necessary steps forward.

"In my opinion, when a lady wants to abort, she will always abort," Anjerike says through her interpreter. "Let it be done in the right way, not going for illegal abortion."

Sengoga says some organizations with ties to religious groups in Rwanda — a country where the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups are influential — have opposed efforts to liberalize the laws and provide abortion access.

Aloys Ndengeye is with Human Life International Rwanda, which opposes abortion rights.

Aloys Ndengeye is with Human Life International Rwanda, an international group that opposes abortion rights. "Jail should be one of the punishments [for undergoing an abortion], because it's just killing," he says. "When you kill, there is a punishment."
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
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Sarah McCammon/NPR
Aloys Ndengeye is with Human Life International Rwanda, an international group that opposes abortion rights. "Jail should be one of the punishments [for undergoing an abortion], because it's just killing," he says. "When you kill, there is a punishment."

"God created human life, " he says. "So it is not [for] ourselves to decide."

He sees incarceration for abortion as one way of reinforcing that idea.

"Of course there is a jail. Jail should be one of the punishments, because it's just killing," Ndengeye says. "When you kill, there is a punishment."

Sengoga Christopher, with HDI, says many women face those perceptions upon returning home from prison.

"Whenever the neighbors, the relatives know that they have gone to prison because of abortion as a crime, they term abortion as 'killing,' as 'murder.' So when they come back to the community, they see them as a killer," Sengoga says. "So you can imagine reintegration is very challenging."

Struggling to survive

In addition to whatever social stigma they face, Sengoga says because many come from poor families, they struggle to survive financially.

Many survive by doing farm work or domestic tasks like washing clothes.

"It is really hard doing casual labor, sometimes getting paid less than $1 or $2 per day per week," Sengoga says. "And survival becomes very complicated."

Some of the women said they had learned skills like reading, writing, or basket weaving during their time in prison, but still struggle when faced with the realities of life outside.

Nyiramahirwe Epiphanie, from northern Rwanda, says her father turned her into the police after he found out she had induced an abortion using a mixture of grasses several years ago. She says she was sentenced to 15 years in prison before she was pardoned in 2019.
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
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Sarah McCammon/NPR
Nyiramahirwe Epiphanie, from northern Rwanda, says her father turned her into the police after he found out she had induced an abortion using a mixture of grasses several years ago. She says she was sentenced to 15 years in prison before she was pardoned in 2019.

Nyiramahriwe Epiphanie, from northern Rwanda, says she was still in her late teens when she became pregnant as a result of rape. She's from a poor family, she says, and was worried about how she would care for a baby if she were to carry to term. Eventually, she says she decided to swallow a grass mixture to end her pregnancy. She estimates she was about six months along.

Epiphanie's father noticed blood on her clothing and reported her to the police, she says. She was still bleeding when she first went to jail.

Now in her mid-20s with a young child, Epiphanie was pardoned in 2019 from what she says would have been a 15-year prison sentence. She says she learned to sew and weave baskets in prison but doesn't have the money to buy the materials she'd need to turn that into a business.

Instead, she gets by on whatever part-time jobs she can find, often digging holes for local farmers. She says the pay is usually around 500 Rwandan Francs per day, or less than half a dollar. She says it's difficult enough to support herself and her child, but she still dreams of putting something aside for their future.

"I'm trying to save - If I get 500 [Francs], I save 200. But because of the situation, I can't save; I end up using all of the money that I have," Epiphanie says. "I'm just thinking maybe in the future that things can change, and I can get a job or something to do that I can make sure that my child doesn't pass through what I passed through."

Akingeneye Theopiste was sentenced to 10 years in prison for using pills to self-induce an abortion in 2014. She served five years before receiving her pardon.
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
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Sarah McCammon/NPR
Akingeneye Theopiste was sentenced to 10 years in prison for using pills to self-induce an abortion in 2014. She served five years before receiving her pardon.

She's not alone in that challenge. Akingeneye Theopiste, who spent about five years in prison, also said she also lacks the startup funds to make a living weaving baskets.

So she and her husband and their young daughter get by as day laborers — ideally for pay, and sometimes, just for something to eat.

"Sometimes they don't even have the money. But I tell them, 'Give me the food, and then I dig for you,' " Theopiste says. "So that's how we are surviving."

Finding a future

When Akimanizanye Florentine was released, a woman she'd worked for as a domestic servant before her incarceration offered to take her in.

And then, Florentine says, she met a man and they both fell in love. She says she was afraid at first to tell him about her experience with going to prison for her abortion.

Florentine feared that he would reject her, but she resolved to tell him the truth.

"If he accepts me, well and good. If he doesn't, then let him go," she says. "So I just made a decision."

She was relieved by his response: "[He said], 'I don't care. I'm going to marry you.' "

That was about two years ago. Today, Florentine has bigger aspirations for her future; she's trying to save up enough money to buy sheep and goats for breeding. She says she's saved about 100,000 Rwandan Francs - around $85, or about half of what she thinks she needs to start her business.

With her husband's encouragement, she's also been telling her story to other young women.

"He told me, 'It's okay, even if I hear it on the radio. Go on and tell other people what you passed through,' " Florentine says. "It will help a lot of people."

Ruchi Kumar contributed to this report. This story was produced with support from the United Nations Foundation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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