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More Kenyan Women Risk Their Lives with Unsafe Backstreet Abortions as Legal Uncertainty Persists

By Sethi Ncube

Kenya is grappling with complexities surrounding abortion. (Photo: Women's Media Center)

The uncertainty in Kenyan abortion laws is driving many women to seek services from unofficial clinics. BBC Africa Eye investigated the stigma and misinformation surrounding abortion in the country.

Kenya is grappling with complexities surrounding abortion. Kenya's penal code, rooted in the colonial era, prohibits abortion, making it a criminal offense for the woman, the abortion provider, and the supplier of materials. However, under the 2010 constitution and broader legal provisions, abortion is permitted in cases where the "life or health of the mother is in danger" or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. According to a lawyer interviewed by the BBC, a woman giving birth while living with HIV could pose a threat to "her physical wellbeing". Due to this factor and others, she might meet the criteria for a lawful abortion. According to Prof Joachim Osur, a reproductive and sexual health expert at Amref International University in Nairobi, high-profile arrests over the years have made the situation "dangerous for health workers". In 2004, Dr. John Nyamu, along with two nurses, faced charges for the alleged murder of two fetuses, a crime punishable by the death penalty. Dr. Nyamu spent 12 months in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi before being acquitted. The media frenzy surrounding his case led to the establishing the Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance - a group that led the debate to help draft the 2010 constitution, which for the first time in Kenya's history provided a legal, albeit limited, avenue for abortion. Dr Nyamu, who now provides safe and legal abortions, believes that the legal uncertainty over abortion makes it hard for women to access these services, even when they should be allowed and particularly in public health facilities. "Unsafe abortion is rampant in Kenya," Dr Nyamu said. He argued that poor women suffer the most as safe terminations are not available in public hospitals because of the uncertainty and lack of guidelines. The unsafe abortions they end up seeking can lead to health problems. Around seven women and girls die every day in Kenya because of unsafe abortions while thousands more are hospitalised, according to the global human rights organisation, Center for Reproductive Rights. Women pay up to U.S.$16 at a 'backstreet clinic' on the outskirts of Nairobi. The man reportedly charges extra for the safe disposal of the foetus. If the woman cannot afford that he pays someone to throw it in the river. "We have girls who are still going to school. You get others who are raped. You get someone who is not ready, and they want to terminate it. We do help because they come for help. They need that help from us," the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Anti-abortion campaigners and associated religious organisations, many of whom are supported by the anti-abortion lobby in the United States of America, insist the law is clear - abortion is illegal. In 2012, the Kenyan government published guidelines for health workers on legal abortions. In 2013, they were withdrawn, and training on safe abortion care was suspended. MP Esther Passaris who speaks out in favour of abortion and pushes for improved sexual health and family planning education said that while the 2010 constitution legalised abortion in certain circumstances, she argued that the fear around it restricts women's access to health services, particularly for those from poorer communities. "The rich have an opportunity to take their children to five-star hospitals and procure a safe abortion, silently, without anyone knowing or speaking. But the poor have to struggle," Passaris said. In March 2022, Kenya's High Court affirmed abortion as a fundamental right under the terms of constitution and ruled that arbitrary arrests were illegal, but little has been done to allay the fears of some women.


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