On Tuesday, 6 December 2016, HRAPF released a report on the enforcement of criminal abortion laws in Uganda and its impact on women and health workers.
The study set out to examine the trends of enforcement of Uganda’s criminal abortion laws, and the particular experiences of women and health providers who come into contact with the criminal justice system for abortion-related crimes. The study tracks the rates of arrests, prosecutions, convictions and incarcerations for abortion related crimes.
The study applied both quantitative and qualitative research methods. It was nation-wide study but specifically focused on two districts: Kampala and Kitgum. Information from these two districts illuminates the general trends of implementation of abortion laws in Uganda.
It revealed that abortion laws are being implemented at the national level as well as in the two study districts, though the numbers of arrests are very low compared to the estimated number of abortions carried out in Uganda every year. The study revealed a much higher rate of reporting and arresting in Kitgum as compared to Kampala, proportional to the populations of each of these two districts. Some arrests are taking place merely for the purpose of extortion by family members of the girl or woman who had aborted and the police. Health workers in particular were found to be the targets of such extortion. The study found that almost without exception, the persons arrested were poor.
It further found out that although abortions are rampantly taking place, the cases which reach the knowledge of the Police are few and far in between. It was found that very few of the cases that are reported to police are actually prosecuted due to the inherent difficulty in investigating these cases as well as trends of complainants losing interest or being paid off. Prosecutions of women and girls and health workers under these laws are rarely undertaken or successful and even when they are, the sentences imposed usually amount to mere warnings.
Despite the fact that abortion-related crimes are rarely prosecuted successfully, the existence and enforcement of these laws nevertheless lead to the violation of the rights of women, girls and health workers. The study found that the criminalisation of abortion forces women to undergo unsafe and clandestine abortions which violates their rights to life and health. A major finding of the study was that women and girls who have been exposed to their communities after being arrested on abortion charges experience severe stigma which compels them to leave their homes and villages.
The study finds that the rights of women and girls to be informed, upon arrest, of the charges against them and their entitlement to legal representation is violated, constituting an infringement of their right to liberty and security of person. It was found that some communities and police officers prioritise the enforcement of abortion laws above the provision of medical treatment to women and girls in need of care following an abortion, which violates their right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The study has found that while abortion laws discriminate against women in general, women of lower socio-economic status, as well as girls under the age of 18, are particularly prone to suffer the effects of its enforcement.
The study found that a broad range of rights of health workers are also violated in the process of enforcing abortion laws. Health workers are usually arrested under the abortion laws for the mere purpose of blackmailing them and extorting bribes, which violates their right to dignity, liberty, and security of person. The abortion laws furthermore hinder health workers in exercising their profession of choice by rendering them vulnerable to arrest and damage to their professional reputation. The arrest of health workers is also occasioned with severe stigma and they tend to feel the same pressure to move elsewhere in cases where the community has been made aware of the arrest.
The report entitled ‘The enforcement of criminal abortion laws in Uganda and its impact on women and health workers’ and it was launched by Dr. Charles Kiggundu, the former President of the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Association of Uganda.