The following blog is an opinion piece submitted by Stephanie Muya:

‘Every person has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care.’

This is a direct quote from the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, Article 43 (1). Though an ideal to strive towards, it is not a reality for Kenyans.

Gender based violence and the pandemic

Covid-19 illuminated cases of sexual and gender-based violence around the world. Kenya specifically was rocked when, five months into the pandemic, news headlines read, ‘Close to 4,000 schoolgirls impregnated in Kenya during Covid-19 lockdown’. (Oduor, M. 2020). Statistics also show that 23.6% of sampled Kenyans reported that they have witnessed domestic violence in their communities since the introduction of COVID-19 containment measures. (OCHA, 2020). These headlines portray the need for laws, policies and discussions around the protection and implementation of women and girls’ rights; issues that have been existing way before the onset of the pandemic.

The Reproductive Healthcare Bill 2019

This bill was sponsored by Senator Susan Kihika and was published for gazettement in November 2019. It addresses day to day issues that affect adolescent girls and women that do not receive the attention they require. It was initially tabled in 2014 with no progress since then and has been subjected to slander and malicious campaigns terming it as the ‘abortion bill’ which is false since it addresses holistic issues relation to sexual reproductive health rights.

On abortion, Articles 26, 27 and 28 of the bill suggests the conditions that should allow a woman to seek abortion services and these include: when the pregnancy is a risk to their lives, when there is a risk to the fetus and it may suffer physical or mental abnormalities and in emergencies. The bill does not force medical practitioners to perform abortion should they prefer not to; it encourages that if their personal values are against it, they can refer women to other providers. While these are great strides, from reading through the articles the element of freedom of choice by women to procure an abortion is still a grey area.

Freedom of choice means that any women who has an unwanted pregnancy should be able to walk into a government hospital and acquire a safe abortion. For example, when a contraceptive fails, a woman cannot walk into a hospital to terminate the pregnancy. If this is not factored in, we shall continue to observe high rate of unsafe abortion because women and girls may have to procure abortions in unqualified institutions or from quacks. The Centre for Reproductive Rights already estimates that 2,600 women and girls die annually in Kenya, amounting to seven deaths every day from complications related to unsafe abortions. (The Centre for Reproductive Rights, 2020). This is therefore already a reality.

There is however light at the end of the tunnel since in 2019, The High Court in Kenya ruled that rape survivors had the right to an abortion following its orders that authorities pay close to 30,000 USD in damages to the mother of a teenage victim who died after a botched abortion. (Bhalla, N. and Malalo, H, 2019)

In Articles 32 and 33, the bill speaks to reproductive health of adolescents and requires the government to ensure that adolescents to put in place systems for adolescent friendly reproductive health services to provide adolescents with the information that they need to make informed decisions relating to their reproductive health. However, should this bill be passed to law, the government needs to invest resources to ensure that their services are human rights based responsive and also to create awareness on the need for access to information for adolescents. The aim of advocacy is to ensure that the general population acknowledges the need for comprehensive sex education and adopts as a way of life.

On motherhood, articles 9, 10 and 11 provide guidelines on assisted reproduction including surrogacy. The inclusion of these articles allows for women to exercise choice and have options. The bill, as observed in articles 23, 24, and 25 is strict on providing adequate and quality pre-natal, maternal health care and post-natal services. This is great because the government as the main service provider should have systems in place that ensure that pregnant women are able to carry their children, give birth to them and receive the proper care they need. This should already be in place but sadly, just two months or so ago we witnessed (through social media) a woman having to give birth outside of a public – government funded hospital because she was denied access to get into the hospital.

Women’s rights are human rights

In conclusion, as a society, we need to realize that women’s rights are human rights and they should be accorded whatever is required to ensure that they are living healthy and happy lives with full access to their rights as per the Bill of Rights. I urge every Kenyan citizen, woman or not, that comes across this article to spend time going through the bill – which is accessible online. We have to play our part as active citizens to make sure that we get gender responsive services. Even though this should come without saying, women must be allowed to have a say, exercise choice on matters that directly affect them including their reproductive health rights.

Stephanie is a young feminist who lives in Kenya and writes about Gender issue. She is passionate about young women living their lives to the fullest capacity and taking up leadership in different spaces.