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Kenya: Now or Never

July 17, 2009

MeansOfReproductionCover_400President Obama has a unique opportunity to put pressure on Kenya’s leaders to improve their record on reproductive health and rights.  And that opportunity is now.  

The right to reproductive health should be entrenched in the constitution. The only way we can reduce maternal fatalities in the country is by making abortion rare, safe and legal.
– Professor Jospeh Karanja, Kenya Medical Association

Kenya is in the midst of a complicated Constitutional review process, during which contentious issues in the current constitutional drafts can be debated and amended through public fora.  Since the 1990’s Kenyans have been waiting for a finalized constitution and can’t yet seem to agree.  One issue that continues to stir intense debate is reproductive rights, specifically abortion.  Yesterday reproductive rights activists faced off against religious leaders to debate.

Currently, abortion in Kenya is legal only to save a woman’s life, and the penal code criminalizes those who provide abortions, seek abortions, and pay for abortions.  Five years ago, Dr. John Nyamu, a well known gynecologist was framed and thrown in jail for the “murder” of two fetuses, who were found discarded in a garbage bag on a river bank.  Although the charges were thrown out for lack of evidence, he languished in jail for one year and has endured continual harassment and suspicion ever since.  His civil case, in which he seeks damages from the Kenyan Government for his ordeal, is up this week, although thanks to a limp judicial system no one expects a very exonerative outcome.

As if that weren’t Orwellian enough, religious groups – whose voice is louder than almost any other group in Kenyan society and who by and large do not support reproductive rights – are proposing new language to the Constitution that would codify ‘life begins at conception,’ thus dashing any of the dim hopes that Kenyan reproductive rights activists have kept alive for years of expanding rights. 

Currently, unsafe abortion is a raging and grave public health issue in Kenya.  Numbers are dicey but it’s safe to say that at least thousands a year die from complications of unsafe abortion, while many more take the risk each day.  This issue is not being adequately addressed either through health care services or on the policy level.  In short, a giant fog of shame and stigma clouds progress forward. 

Reproductive rights activists (and those who will talk openly and progressively about abortion in Kenya are very, very few) say that such restrictive, nay oppressive, language about a woman’s right to choose does not belong in a constitution.  And they’re right.  But they’re having a hell of a time making the case, and are continually drowned out by inciting cries of “abortion is murder” from the pulpit every Sunday. 

Abortion is an extremely touchy issue in Kenya, and that will not soon change.  However, there’s a critical case to be made for depoliticizing it, as rights advocates have tried to do in the U.S.  Disagree with me on abortion, fine, but don’t try to legislate MY body.  And certainly not in the country’s foundational document, it’s constitution. 

Obama should make it clear to Kenya’s leaders that “good governance” includes protecting the health and rights of its people and almost more importantly, its women.  The health care system needs to address actual reproductive health needs, and reproductive rights should be recognized as human rights. 

How can a country regain positive momentum – accountability, democracy, security, prosperity – when half of its population is under the forced yoke of its sex? 

There are continual government stock-outs of family planning, a proliferation of misinformation about sexual health, and a certain macho culture that insists “sex is not sex with a condom.”  Those issues are chronic, but a lot easier to talk about than the dreaded A word.  If the proposed Constitutional changes from the religious right are accepted, there won’t be anymore A word.  Or at least the A word will go further underground, and the issue will be exacerbated and multiplied over time.  That’s why this opportunity for pressure from Kenya’s son is singular.  There are a lot of lives are depending on it.  

J.Mack is a global feminist residing in Nairobi, Kenya

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