Kenya condemns women to ‘death by unsafe abortion’, campaigners warn

NITA BHALLA

THOUSANDS of women are dying every year in Kenya due to botched backstreet abortions, campaigners have warned, 10 years after the introduction of safeguards to abortion access when a woman’s life is in danger.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution broadened access to abortion, permitting it when a woman’s life is at risk or in case of an emergency, and guaranteeing the right to life and reproductive health services.

But a report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR) released ahead of the anniversary on Thursday said disregard for the provisions was fuelling stigma, resulting in the deaths of thousands of women annually.

Evelyne Opondo, CRR’s senior regional director for Africa, said widespread conservative attitudes stigmatizing abortion had driven women and girls to unregulated clinics run by untrained medical practitioners.

“The persisting stigma and false narratives about abortion in the public domain and criminal justice system has put the lives of more Kenyan women and girls on the line,” said Opondo during a webinar launching the report.

“They are afraid of seeking safe and legal abortion for fear of prosecution even in situations where terminated pregnancy is the result of rape.”

Officials from Kenya’s health ministry and the office of director of the public prosecutions did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report’s findings.

Poor women and girls are often unaware they have the right to abortion services if they suffer a miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or rape and many cannot afford private facilities, where abortions are easily available.

As a result, they have unsafe abortions – at home or in backstreet clinics, often inserting knitting needles into the cervix or drinking bleach – which account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, much higher than the global average.

Almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 – the most recent data available – with one in four resulting in complications such as fever, sepsis, shock or organ failure, according to health ministry data.

An estimated 2,600 women and girls die annually in Kenya, amounting to seven deaths every day, from complications related to unsafe abortions, said the CRR report.

Most victims are women and girls from impoverished urban and rural settlements who cannot afford private healthcare, and face stigma and discrimination seeking treatment in public hospitals.

Women’s rights groups say authorities, influenced by Christian groups, have made it harder for women to access safe abortions by failing to provide guidelines and banning health workers from training, despite court rulings.

“Ten years since the promulgation of the constitution we are still losing the lives of women and girls in great numbers,” said Martha Karua, a Kenyan parliamentarian and women’s rights advocate.

“These deaths are preventable, but unfortunately little has been done … Our inaction has pushed poor women and girls to quacks. We are condemning them to death by unsafe abortion,” Karua said during the webinar. – Thomson Reuters Foundation