Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Jean Berchmans Uwimana

Dr. Jean Berchmans Uwimana, an MSFC alum from University of Rwanda, uses creativity and community engagement to advocate for safe abortion. Here he talks about his personal journey from being staunchly anti-choice to dedicating his career to the advancement of safe abortion.

What made you decide to become involved with MSFC?

I started my undergraduate medical training at the University of Rwanda in 2013, coming from a very religious Catholic male high school where future priests are trained. I deviated and decided to do something different, which was a painful decision to perceive for many, including parents, classmates, and school representatives. They all had hope for me as a future priest who has been the head boy (to be a “head boy” in that school, they should see qualities of a future priest, to be able to lead other future priests). The headmaster (a priest) even decided to hire me as a teacher right after graduating before even the national examination results were out. This never happened in the history of this reputable school, but I had to take the job for one year. Besides, my family is very culturally and religiously conservative.

Going to medical school, I had to look for occupational activities that would keep me busy, and joining students’ associations was the only option for me. My friend Chris told me about a pro-choice chapter they were initiating. He invited me to join and just explore and then decide to join or not. Honestly, I joined this group with the ambition of challenging the members to show them how sinful they have become and tell them that if they continue that belief in safe abortion, in the end, they will only hear about heaven in the newspapers. I was a very judging person acting as if I owned heaven, but of course, this was influenced by the single-story background that left me with many similar stereotypes.

Dr. Jean Berchmans Uwimana, MSFC alum from University of Rwanda

The first day I joined the MSFC chapter at the University of Rwanda, we had an opportunity to visit a local clinic and learn from the stories about unsafe abortion cases. At that clinic, there was an infection ward with women and girls being treated for severe infection and other complications that resulted from unsafe abortion. Some of the cases made me cry. They were grievous and painful to perceive in the mind of a human being.

After the session, I went back home to my tiny room at the campus with the homework of answering the questions:

  • “What matters between keeping my beliefs and saving the lives of women and girls?”
  • “Why are only women and girls in that ward, by the way? Is it because their sin is stronger than men and boys during sexual intercourse?”.

The stories of victims of unsafe abortion increased my curiosity to explore the reality of women and girls having access to safe abortion. This curiosity boosted my interest in the MSFC chapter at the University of Rwanda. By the time I joined this chapter, it was a bit dormant, with members contextually fearing to talk about abortion publicly. Having become a student leader, I am happy that I helped save the chapter by making it more visible, having students at the medical school join, and connecting with local safe abortion activists. We participated in safe abortion strategic litigation advocacy and hosted two successive African Regional Meetings of Medical Students For Choice for the first time, which also benefited other African chapters and helped form new chapters.

Why is advocating for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, including safe abortion, important to you?

I strongly believe in people’s freedom and especially the freedom to choose if, when, and how many children to have and with whom to have children and the freedom to decide on issues relating to one’s own body. Locally, people undermine the power and benefits of this freedom due to stigma that obscures the reality of this freedom. I believe that people deserve sexual and reproductive lives free from violence, coercion, and discrimination and merit the full enjoyment and well-being of sexual and reproductive health. When I do advocacy, of course, I am supporting the voice of many to be heard, but I am also doing it for myself because I also deserve to exist in a world where people are happy with their choices, without any influence, because people are the best specialists of what is going on in their lives.

As a medical doctor, safe abortion advocacy has a lot to do with my career. I want to be able to provide services confidently without the fear of legal barricades. This would make me feel happy as the provider and make my clients happier. The reality is the country would also benefit in incredible ways. My colleague once denied service to a 17 years old girl who came to him begging for a safe abortion so she can focus on school and be able to meet her future full potential. She didn’t bring a parent or a guardian because she insisted she can’t disclose this to them at all. In our context, the doctor couldn’t provide the service even if he wanted to because it would be against the law and cause him to have at least three years of imprisonment. Two weeks later, the same doctor received the same client back in severe condition following an unsafe abortion that resulted in a total abdominal hysterectomy procedure at 17 years, which means this young girl won’t ever get pregnant. This made my colleague quit his medical career at 30 years old. Today he is a gym coach instead. This very same scenario may happen to anyone practicing under the same legal aspects of abortion, and that’s why safe abortion advocacy means a lot to me.

Dr. Uwimana speaking to a group of medical students about the SAVE (Safe Abortion Videos Edutainment) project.

Why was it important to you to be educated in safe abortion/family planning?

Being educated in safe abortion and family planning, in general, has given me the opportunity to destroy related negative stereotypes and beliefs that would put a client in danger. I also had a chance to explore the reality of this component which has given me an opportunity to be more contributive to the society around me as I provide services confidently to beneficiaries. If it weren’t for the education that I received through the Medical Students For Choice, I probably wouldn’t be able to think about the long-term sustainability of the education we receive from both students’ to providers’ perspectives. This perspective has given me the occasion to initiate Medical Doctors For Choice in Rwanda. This network aims at transferring the knowledge to service delivery without biases.

Moreover, the education I received about family planning helped me think about creating a gender, quality, and youth-friendly edutainment platform dubbed “Flavours of Family Planning or The Kitchen Show.” This show employs kitchen materials for hands-on simulation to provide gender-friendly information to men and boys about their engagement in family planning. I decided to involve the kitchen to decentralize Family Planning science to the level of understanding of many and as a gender norm transformation approach since cooking in our local context has been for so long admitted as a female gender role. I am happy about this community engagement show because even if it was initially designed to engage men and boys, upon execution, I keep realizing that it embraces the attention of all genders.

Dr. Uwimana presenting one of the Flavours of Family Planning videos.

What do you do for fun?

Primarily, I love teaching other people about humanity or talking about the value of equality. Secondly, I enjoy cooking, sometimes I even feel like cooking for people I don’t necessarily know. Thirdly, I love sports, especially swimming.