A team of legislators from the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has concluded its visit to Rwanda where it conducted national consultations seeking views, ideas and input for the East African Community (EAC) Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill. The Bill seeks to come up with a harmonised way of protecting the right to sexual and reproductive health of all persons in the region as well as push for the related information and services as part of the universal health coverage in all Partner States. The Bill was first introduced to the regional Assembly in February 2017 by Odette Nyiramilimo who was serving at the regional block as one of Rwanda’s representatives. However, her mandate came to the end before the Bill could be passed. Speaking at the meeting to discuss the Bill, Francine Rutazana, one of Rwanda’s representatives at EALA said that a decision to retain the Bill was made by the new Assembly in December 2017. However, in January 2020 during a meeting in Bujumbura, Burundi to discuss the Bill, stakeholders requested EALA to take into consideration the emerging issues regarding the socio-cultural realities in partner states. “In February this year, the Bill was withdrawn paving way for redrafting to ensure that all the stakeholders within our region including governments, private sector, civil society organisations, and faith-based organizations among others are on the same page,” she said. Why the Bill was recalled The Policy Officer for African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), Nicholas Okapu Etyang told stakeholders at the Kigali meeting that the Bill was recalled after gaps were identified especially in the language used as it did not align with the domestic laws of Partner States. “Besides the language, it was suggested that the Bill is redrafted to include important international instruments like the Maputo Protocol as well as the consideration of varying understanding of the term ‘abortion services’ or even the grounds on which these services can be accessed in our region,” he said. The Maputo Protocol is a binding legal framework that upholds the rights of women and girls in Africa and holds governments to account for the violation of these rights. Etyang also explained that the Bill did not only lack the reproductive health rights of adolescents and young people beyond just HIV protection, it also lacked the part that talks about male involvement. Other gaps include a missing link to culture and religion where it was noted that both contribute to the interpretation of issues on matters like abortion, family planning, fertility differ. As a result, regional consultations and engagement with civil society organizations, faith-based organisations, medical practitioners and governments were recommended. Review cultural limitations While meeting the stakeholders in Kigali this past week, Kenya’s Fatuma Ibrahim Ali also touched on culture which she said should be scrutinised carefully, reminding those present that not all of it is progressive. Ali reminded that sometimes culture is used to control others to deny certain groups their rights and should be reviewed carefully. “The most disadvantaged groups when it comes to culture are women and girls. The custodians and promoters of our culture are considered to be women but the enforcers are the men. Let‘s advance culture that enhances our rights,” she said. Addressing faith-based organisations, Ali reminded that the Bill is not addressing abortion for ‘leisure’. “We are not promoting abortion for leisure. We are looking at our society, our children, and our youth and accepting that they are more active than we ever were. The dynamics have changed and we must accept that,” she said. Burundi’s representative to EALA, Jean Marie Muhirwa reminded that the discussions with the stakeholders are being held across the region to collect views that will contribute to a bill that is effective and that carries the views of the citizens of the region. He reminded that although the EAC region has rich cultural values, there is need to catch up with the world as it evolves. “These tours are an opportunity for us to look at what we should adapt and what shouldn’t. We need to intermarry the views from civil society, interfaith organisations, governments so that we pass a Bill built on consensus,” he said. The Executive Director of Health Development Initiative Aflodis Kagaba said that the EAC Bill seeks to give the beneficiaries the opportunity to enjoy sexual reproductive health information and services from anywhere in the region. “An adolescent in Burundi has the same needs as the one of South Sudan. Let’s see how we can have a friendly, enabling environment. This type of framework is a step towards ensuring that our communities stay healthy,” he said. He reminded that after the national consultations, the next phase will be public hearings where countries make their positions clear. “This is a Bill that has been discussed for five years but the fact that we are involving everyone concerned is an indication of how important it is,” he said. Articles of interest During the discussions, a debate on labia elongation which is practised in the region was tabled where questions were raised on whether it should or should not be included in the Bill. Sheikh Musa Sindayigaya who represented Rwanda Interfaith Council on Health (RICH) said expressed their support for Article 22 that lists harmful practices that include Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the council requested that labia elongation be added to the list. “As faith-based organisations, we request that labia elongation is added to the list as modifying the body contradicts all Holy Books teachings,” he said. The Policy Officer for African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), Etyang reminded that there was need to ensure that young girls are not pressured into this practice and for them to be given an opportunity to choose whether they want to do it or not when they make the age of consent. Article 21 of the Bill calls on all Partner States to regulate the use of assisted reproductive technologies to ensure that assisted reproductive services provided in the public and private sector are lawful, safe and effective. However, the article also calls for the regulation of surrogacy to be restricted to people that are medically unable to bear children or those that are unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Article 23 points out that any person under the age of eighteen does not have the capacity to consent to marriage meaning that any union of the sort shall be deemed void. However, the article also calls for imprisonment not exceeding 10 years upon conviction and a fine of $30,000 for any parent or guardian that gives a minor consent to get married. Although participants at the consultative meeting heard that there are member States like Rwanda that advocate for teenage mothers to continue with their education, the bill calls for clearly written national policies on the same. “Every Partner State shall design and implement their education programmes and facilities and require every provider of education to ensure that adolescent girls or young women who become pregnant before completing their education are given the opportunity to complete their education,” the draft legislation reads in part. The same Article requires Partner States to develop and implement mechanisms to provide vocational, skills and career development and training for adolescent girls and young women who may be unable to continue with their education after pregnancy.