Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

HEALTH-KENYA: A New Report Fires Up the Abortion Debate

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, May 7 2004 (IPS) - A report suggesting the legalisation of abortion in Kenya to reduce maternal mortality has sparked a heated debate in the country. Pro-life organisations claim that preventing unwanted pregnancies is a better way of reducing these deaths.

The study, ‘A National Assessment of the Magnitude and Consequences of Unsafe Abortion in Kenya’ recommends that “There should be a review of the policy and law on abortion in Kenya.” At present, termination of pregnancy is outlawed in the East African country, except in instances where a woman’s life is in danger.

Research for the document was done by the Kenya Medical Association, the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-K), the Ministry of Health and International Projects Assistance Services (IPAS) – a United States-based organisation that lobbies for women’s reproductive rights. It was launched Thursday (May 6) in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

The report indicates that about 300,000 abortions are performed in the country each year, causing an estimated 20,000 women and girls to be hospitalised with related complications. This translates into a daily ‘abortion rate’ of about 800 procedures – and the death of 2,600 women every year.

At a press conference held May 5 ahead of the launch, Peter Gichangi – a senior lecturer at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Nairobi – told journalists, “We are using the study as a tool to market our case, to advocate for policy changes.”

Similarly, IPAS Vice-President for Africa Eunice Brookman-Amissah said, “We cannot continue to sit on the fence while women and young girls continue to die from a problem that can be prevented. Despite the restrictive law in Kenya, unsafe abortion will continue to happen unless we take steps to address the problem, as has been done in other countries.”

Brookman-Amissah pointed to South Africa, Tunisia and Cape Verde as examples of African countries which had legalised abortion – adding that in developed nations “women do not die from unsafe abortion because their governments have made it possible for them to undergo safe legal termination of pregnancy when this becomes necessary”.

However, old battle lines around this issue were re-drawn this week when pro-life organisations again registered their opposition to legalised abortion.

“We cannot even discuss legalisation of abortion in Kenya…To prevent deaths from abortion, we must first and foremost prevent unwanted pregnancies,” Jean Kaggi, Chairwoman of the Protecting Life Movement of Kenya, told IPS.

“The first preventive measure is advocating for utilisation of family planning facilities, and making sure they are accessible to every woman or girl who is sexually active,” noted Kaggi, who is also Regional Secretary of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association.

This argument is complicated by the fact that Kenya has been facing a shortage of contraceptives since last year.

James Nyikal, the Health Ministry’s Director of Medical Services, said this had resulted from a delay in the supply of contraceptives that was caused by, among other things, the long procurement process.

“Our policy is to supply them free to all health facilities in the country. But when we buy them and supply is delayed, we face a crisis like the one we are in now. We are otherwise expecting a supply by the end of this month or June,” he said in response to a question posed by IPS at the May 5 press conference.

Health minister Charity Ngilu says government is exploring alternative means of making contraceptives available to the population.

“We have not yet attained contraceptive security and the ministry is looking into ways of sharing this very expensive service with other partners in reproductive health,” she said in a speech read on her behalf at the launch by Nyikal.

According to Josephine Kibaru, Director of Reproductive Health at the ministry, contraceptives cost Kenya about 13 million dollars a year.

Pro-lifers say that educating men about the importance of contraceptives is also of key importance in reducing unwanted pregnancies.

“Men are the decision makers in society, and this trickles down even to sexual issues. Men are the ones to decide how and when to have sex. In this regard, it is important that they are educated so that they help their spouses and even remind them to take the contraceptives,” noted Kaggi.

“This information should be passed to them through radio, television, newspapers, chiefs’ barazas (chiefs’ meetings), workplaces, and anywhere men are – even in the bars.”

Nonetheless, a number of women’s organisations have backed the recommendations of the report.

“We will have to start lobbying government to enact enabling laws to facilitate women’s reproductive health rights. When 300,000 women die annually because of abortion, we have a problem,” said Joyce Majiwa, Chairwoman of FIDA-K.

Calls by women parliamentarians in 2003 to have abortion legalised sparked an angry response from Christian groups – which took to the streets of Nairobi to protest against the move.

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