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SRHR Sit Report: Maternal Mortality and Abortion in Kenya

July 12, 2010

The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report is a monthly column highlighting policies and issues around the world.  This month, I’m taking a closer look at maternal death in Kenya.

The East African Caravan for Maternal Health launches in Kenya

Because of it’s relative stability, Kenya is a popular travel and study abroad destination, and has loads of international players working there– including USAID.  Contraceptive prevalence in Kenya hovers around 30%, and the fertility rate is between 4 and 5 children per woman. 

Maternal mortality rates in Kenya are among the world’s highest; a Kenyan woman has a 1 in 39 lifetime risk of dying because of pregnancy or childbirth.  Something like 15,000 women a year die this way– more than a third from unsafe abortion

Direct medical causes for maternal death include hemorrhage, infection, obstructed labor, and unsafe abortion.  As in all poor countries with high maternal mortality rates, the severity of these problems is driven by social factors.  In Kenya, health systems are lacking and infrastructure issues make it difficult to access existing resources.  Moreover, women often lack decision-making power during the entire spectrum of their reproductive lives.  Abortion is illegal, heavily stigmatized, and responsible for the deaths of thousands of Kenyan women every year.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights‘ report, “In Harm’s Way: The Impact of Kenya’s Restrictive Abortion Law,” 2,600 women die every year in Kenya due to complications from unsafe abortions.  More than half of them never sought medical care.  The in-depth report includes powerful stories of women denied the right to choose, including 14-year-old Sarah, who lost her life due to complications from an unsafe abortion; too afraid to go to a doctor as she suffered from a raging infection ” because of the risk of arrest and the fear of community condemnation.”  Make sure you watch this compelling video on the subject from CRR.

After my piece last month criticizing the Gates Foundation’s refusal to fund abortion services, it’s interesting to note that the Foundation has recently announced that it will fund (to the tune of $23M) a family planning program in Kenya run by Johns Hopkins’ Jhpiego.  Jhpiego’s expertise lies in strengthening health systems, and the Gates-funded program seeks to “meet Millennium Development Goal 5 to reduce maternal mortality by increasing women’s access to and use of RH services…”  by shoring up public and private service delivery methods.  Jhpiego also works with USAID in Kenya on the Maternal and Child Health Project.  It’s worth noting that none of these programs specifically fund abortion services.

With CRR’s report and an upcoming constitutional reform process, abortion has been brought to the forefront of the discussion on maternal mortality in Kenya.  Conservative religious leaders are campaigning for a “total rejection of the draft constitution” because it wouldn’t explicitly define life as beginning at conception.  I’m baffled again by the one-sidedness of trying to protect fetal life while turning a blind eye on the thousands of women who die seeking abortions every year.  As CRR’s report points out, making abortion illegal doesn’t make it less prevalent, just more dangerous.

In Kenya we again see the imposition of draconian social ideas about women’s role and worth, institutionalized in the form of policies and systems design, causing the needless deaths of thousands of women.  This is why we are global feminists– all over the world women are so lowly-valued that we lose our lives by the millions.  It must stop.

Brook Elliott Buettner is a social justice worker and freelance human rights policy researcher and writer.  Her work is available at

  1. Kim Welo permalink
    July 15, 2010 4:11 am

    ““total rejection of the draft constitution” because it wouldn’t explicitly define life as beginning at conception” is not factual. The same is provided for EXPLICITLY in the draft. (you can confirm here What is in contention is the provision that a professionally trained health worker can procure the abortion. They say this will open floodgates for abortion because anybody can claim to be trained. They had wanted registered medical practitioners who the drafters says are very few in the country and it will take an eternity for t he few to treat the thousands of women who will be needing their services.

  2. July 18, 2010 7:19 pm

    As CRR’s report points out, making abortion illegal doesn’t make it less prevalent, just more dangerous.

    Right, because a lack of correlation is evidence of a lack of causation and the “Center for Reproductive Rights” is a neutral and independent institution. Of course it is…

  3. Dominique Millette permalink
    July 19, 2010 9:44 am

    This. “This is why we are global feminists- all over the world women are so lowly-valued that we lose our lives by the millions. It must stop.” Beautifully said.

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