Reducing poverty or a new breed of eugenics? Sterilization in Rwanda.

A recent announcement calling for vasectomies (sterilization) of 700,000 males over the next two years by Rwandan authorities has many fearing a new eugenic depopulation attempt in Rwanda. The target group is said by critics to be men who cannot pay bills for their children’s upkeep as an effort to somehow reduce poverty, though the government sees it as necessary to keep the population in line with the growth of the economy. The vasectomy operation takes about 15 minutes and can be carried out in a clinic under local anesthetic.

One has to wonder why Rwanda would deem such drastic measures to reduce its population as necessary. Rwanda is certainly not the most population dense country in the world, and currently sits around the 30th most dense country in the world with approximately 380 persons per square kilometer (2009). That’s less dense than the Netherlands, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, Bahrain, Palestine, Bangladesh, Singapore and Macau, among numerous other countries. Macau has nearly 18,534 persons per square kilometer, nearly 50 times that of Rwanda. Singapore has approximately 7,148 persons per square kilometer, nearly 20 times that of Rwanda and is one of the richest countries in Asia because of its export driven economy. Rwanda has a GDP of some $5 billion, while Singapore sits at around $182 billion. Both countries are said to have limited natural resources, but differ significantly in the makeup of their workforce, with Rwanda primarily engaged in agriculture and Singapore primarily engaged in services and industry.

Forced sterilization against a civilian population constitutes a crime against humanity according to Article 7 -1 (g) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and thus the possibility of this occurring is rather alarming. The vasectomies are said to be voluntary, but a look into the history of the country’s previous so-called voluntary policies is a cause for concern.  The imidugudu land reform policy had people abandon their traditional homestead to live in settlement centres– —  and was originally touted as voluntarily, but later resulted in resettlement through coercion and force.  This also would certainly not be the first time Rwanda has attempted eugenic laws or has been subjected to eugenic practices.

The eugenics movement in Europe and the US during the colonial years led western scientists to study the differences between Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities within Rwanda, measuring their skull size, skin colour, etc. and promoting the belief that Tutsis had Caucasian ancestry and were thus “superior” to the Hutus. These practices had a devastating and lasting effect on the population for generations to come, including helping to create structural conditions that would fuel the 1994 genocide. In 2007, the country enacted a law to legally limit family size to no more than three children, similar to China’s one child policy (though President Kagame is said to himself have four children). More recently, in 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that the Rwandan parliament was considering a draft law that would forcibly sterilize people who are mentally disabled, a move contrary to human rights practices, though the Rwandan government again denied that the law would be forcible. According to statistics, the fertility rate in the country is still currently closer to 5 children born per woman (2010), though it has decreased significantly from the 80s when the rate was closer to 8.5 children born per woman.

The Population Research Institute (PRI) cites major concerns with this plan and puts the numbers into perspective. The UN Population Division estimates the entire male population of Rwanda to be only around 5 million, with 70% under the age of 20 or over the age of 50 (making them ineligible as candidates for sterilization). That leaves half of the eligible-aged men in the country to be sterilized. That’s a BIG chunk of the population. The PRI also have concern that army and police may be first to receive vasectomies, and may regard the “voluntary” request as an order when it is directed at them from superiors.

Two USAID-funded special interest groups, Intrahealth and Family Health International, are backing the campaign. This is quite controversial as American law makes it illegal for tax monies to fund forced abortion or sterilizations and experts cite that campaigns that involve quotas, such as this one, have always been considered coercive. This risks the possibility that American tax payers could fund and thus be complicit in a crime against humanity. A Rwandan NGO Urunana has also been heavily promoting reproductive health programs, such as the sterilization projects, through local radio dramas aimed at making the population more receptive to the idea. The BBC reported that the men they interviewed on the streets were cautious about sterilization, but a worker at Urunana suggested that given the option and the “right advice”, men might be willing to consider the procedure.

Given the troubled history of Rwanda, one has to think that a sterilization policy, regardless of whether it is voluntary or coerced is not the best idea. The genocide left many vulnerable populations, who have a great concern of being culled out of existence; and many now fear that this is just the latest RPF program used to try and reduce the number of specific ethnic groups of Rwandans. Some Hutus fear the Tutsis want to wipe out the Hutu majority, as they are blamed to be the cause of overpopulation. Given the history of the region, this is not an entirely irrational fear.

Most attempts at population control have had problematic results, as the Chinese one child policy can clearly attest. Moreover, though many economist believe that the reduction of the population is a key to economic growth, a growing number are now left doubting that a correlation between population reduction and economic growth actually exists and instead blame poverty and famine as being caused by bad government and bad economic policies (see Walter E. Williams or Thomas Sowell). Perhaps if Rwanda is so concerned about economic growth, it should focus more on moving away from an economy based in subsistence farming to work on corruption, poor governance, education and investment, instead of ensuring that half the breeding males are incapable of repopulating.


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