New regional bill seeks to guarantee women reproductive health services

A clear monitoring framework is a must have if aspirations of the newly proposed regional Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill are to be achieved, an expert has said.

Members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) last week held public consultations in Kigali on the Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) Bill 2017.

The Bill aims to promote women’s health and safe motherhood across the region in addition to making provisions for adolescent reproductive health rights.

Article 15 of the draft Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill partly states that “partner states shall safeguard the reproductive rights of a woman by permitting the termination of pregnancy when in the opinion of a trained health professional, the pregnancy endangers the health or life of the woman.”

But the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a movement providing reproductive health and family planning services, said guaranteeing sexual and reproductive health requires a broader range of measures and safeguards.

The IPPF-Africa says these measures and safeguards are necessary for women and adolescent girls, to exercise their fundamental human rights to make free, informed and responsible decisions concerning sexual and reproductive matters without discrimination, coercion or violence, in line with existing international human rights standards and international and regional agreements.

“We need to bring the aspirations of the bill to life by ensuring that there is aclear monitoring framework. We must have indicators across the region for sexual reproductive health,” Bibiane Mbaye Gahamanyi, IPPF-Africa’s external relations advisor, said.

“In addition, we need to ensure that sexual and reproductive health services are funded through increased public sector investment to reduce the burden on individuals to pay for these essential life-saving services”.

While the organisation commended EAC partner states for recognising the importance of sexual and reproductive health for all, Mbaye said there was also need to reflect and mirror on continental and international frameworks like the Maputo Protocol.

Adopted by the African Union in July 2003 in Maputo, Mozambique, the Protocol guarantees comprehensive rights to women, including the right to take part in the political process, to social and political equality with men, improved autonomy in their reproductive health decisions, and an end to female genital mutilation.

“Key to this is the need for access to contraceptives and closing the unmet need, ending violence including child marriages, access to safe abortion and removing barriers which is a major cause for maternal mortality in the region,” Mbaye said.

At the consultative meeting were officials from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, Rwanda National Police, and the Health Development Initiative.

Some were keen to add voice on matters of abortion, an issue still contentious in public discussions.

The Director of Programmes at HDI-Rwanda Jean d’Amour Mutoni suggested that instead of the Bill giving only one permissible ground for abortion, the regional law should be open to three others like in Rwanda where rape, incest and forced marriage can also be grounds for abortion.

“I suggest that you think about adding the others and, most importantly, try to think about the process because in Rwanda in addition to the four exemptions there is a requirement for court clearance,” he added, shedding light on the dilemma posed to pregnant women by lengthy court processes.

Even though regional lawmakers acknowledge the importance of replicating best practices from individual partner states for the common good of the region, EALA MP James Ndahiro (Rwanda) advised that it would not be wise “to refer an ideological issue like abortion to a partner state’s laws and regulations.”

Partner states are at different levels of implementing the same or are using different methods, Ndahiro said, and should be allowed to carry on: “But probably reflect somewhere [in the law] that there are best practices” from other countries to consider”.

At the end, lawmakers are expected to have gathered country specific reports on the draft law detailing country positions and then update the Bill.

MP Odette Nyiramilimo (Rwanda) said the Bill also aims to achieve a rapid and substantial reduction in maternal morbidity and mortality; ensure access to quality and comprehensive provision of family planning services, among others.

The Assembly drafted the SRH Bill in collaboration with the EAC Secretariat and international agencies including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), World Bank, and UNESCO.

Lawmakers are gathering views from stakeholders in partner states to enrich the Bill before it is tabled for debate when lawmakers convene in Kigali early next month.