When I arrived in Mathare (informal settlement in Nairobi) to meet with Rachael Mwikali, the founder of the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders (CGHRD) Kenya, I walked right into a large gathering of feminist activists. They were preparing to march the next day, March 22, in protest of the regressive Reproductive Health Policy 2022–2032 that Kenya’s Ministry of Health was about to launch. They were indignant: “this [reproductive health] policy is not inclusive at all,” Editar Ochieng, of the Feminist for Peace, Rights and Justice Centre—Kibera, told me: “So our voices as feminists are very important. Because here we talk about adolescent girls, sex workers, LBTQ community, and also about us as young women in this country … this document is not conducive at all for us.”
These young grassroots feminists explained to me that the proposed policy was prepared behind closed doors in violation of the Kenyan Constitution, which requires public participation in policy formulation. They believe that right-wing religious groups had a hand in the drafting of the policy—resulting in glaring omissions, retrograde provisions, and disturbing “findings,” which they catalogued with mounting outrage.
For example, the draft policy fails to require the provision of abortion services despite the fact that the right to safe and legal abortion was enshrined in the 2010 Constitution of Kenya when the life or health of the woman is in danger. Unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of death for pregnant persons in Kenya.
The draft policy describes sexual intercourse before the age of 21 as a “harmful practice” and declares that sexual abstinence should be “normalized.” It requires adolescents under 18 who want reproductive health services to obtain the consent of their parents, a departure from current practice.
The policy states that surgical treatment of intersex children (born with sexual characteristics that are not clearly male or female) should be performed at an “opportune time after puberty” and aim for the “classical binary clarity” of being “fully male or fully female” in order for the child to be able to complete their birth registration. (Coercing someone to have surgery is a violation of bodily autonomy).
The proposed policy restricts access to surrogacy services to married heterosexual couples or, if someone is single, requires that they be declared infertile by a professional committee. (One can easily predict gay and lesbian individuals would not make the cut.) And to top it all off, it blames adolescent girls who contract HIV for their “failure to resist forced sex.”
The next day, Rachael and her colleagues marched on the streets of Nairobi to the gates of the Ministry of Health to signal feminist grassroots opposition to the document. They sang and they chanted with gusto.
Interviewed by local paper The Nation, Rachael noted Kenya’s recent international commitments to sexual and reproductive rights: “Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta said at the Generation Equality Forum that Kenya supports feminist leadership. Is this what it is about? Criminalizing women’s bodies?”, she asked. Rachael and her colleagues also denounced Kenya’s signature on the Geneva Consensus Declaration, the anti-abortion manifesto initiated by the Trump Administration and repudiated by President Biden (which Sonia Correa and I discussed in The Famous Feminist January 2022 Newsletter): “Our women and girls are dying in the slums because of unsafe abortions. We want Kenya to withdraw from the [Declaration], just like the US did.”
Rachael and her colleagues describe themselves as “proud, unapologetic African feminists.” Rachael founded CGHRD as a social movement of grassroots feminists, activists and community organizers to address “the gender injustices that we experience and that I have experienced as a young Black woman from informal settlements, and as a woman who sees a lot of my peers, community members and girls, fighting every day to be treated with respect and dignity, to have access to spaces, not to experience violence… A lot of oppression towards women and gender non-confirming people is directed at us based on our sexuality, on our biology. Even if you had the most powerful women or men in a room, when it comes to the oppression linked to their sexual and reproductive health and rights, they don’t speak about it. It’s used to shame them, to criminalize them… That’s why we are fighting this policy.”
“The reason most women are feminists is because at one point in life they’ve experienced violence against their own bodies,” said Marylize Biubwa of Queer Republic and Bi Kind Initiative. “And it’s also the same reason women stay quiet … it really forces women into silence. And silence is very violent…” Marylize decided that, if she wanted to change things, “to save even one life, protect one child,” she had to speak up and act.
When I asked them whether they thought they could stop the policy from being adopted, Rachael explained that many groups had come together to campaign against this noxious policy, and that they had a multi-pronged strategy: “If [the Ministry of Health doesn’t] listen, we go to court.” While CGHRD and its partners were taking to the streets, the lawyers at KELIN (Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS) were preparing a case against the Ministry for failure to meet its constitutional obligation to consult the public. A petition drive was also organized by KELIN, while SIRC (Strategic Issues and Research Council) and CGHRD were mapping anti-choice groups.
Two days later, in Kisumu in Western Kenya, Monica Oguttu, a nurse midwife and the Executive Director of KMET (Kisumu Medical and Education Trust), told me with some relief that she had heard the policy had been put on hold—at least for the time being—as a result of this flurry of activism.
Monica shares the suspicions of the Mathare and Kibera feminists about anti-choice groups working inside the Ministry on issues of maternal and reproductive health: “There is a hand here, because it [the process of developing the policy] started off very well. It was announced … and we were going to involve the counties [the 47 local entities in charge of healthcare services in Kenya] and public participation … and then suddenly, it went underground.”
Monica noted that CitizenGo, a Spanish ultra-right-wing Catholic group present in Kenya since the mid 2010s, had suddenly become more vocal as this draft policy was being prepared for launch. She was also concerned about anti-choice groups preparing to rally in Kisumu the following Saturday. “They are more active now. They are organizing demonstrations, rallies … they are going county by county, and the rally [targets] the Reproductive Health Policy, yeah. Everything is about that…” In 2019 and 2020, CitizenGo’s online attacks caused two reasonably progressive bills on reproductive health to be shelved by Kenya’s Congress.
Women and girls still die in childbirth and during pregnancy at alarming rates in Kenya. The most recent national statistics report 362 women dying for every 100,000 live births. (In India, by comparison, it’s 113.) In Western Kenya, that figure is nearly double, at close to 500 deaths. It’s a long way from the UN Sustainable Development global goal of 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030.
“There is a powerful saying in the local dialect that ‘delivering [a baby] is a sister to death.’ When a woman leaves the house to deliver, you don’t know whether she will come back,” Monica told me. Monica estimates that post-partum hemorrhage (PPH) accounts for 40% of maternal deaths in Kisumu County: that is why she and her KMET team have been training healthcare workers to manage PPH, with good results. Monica noted with frustration that unsafe abortion still amounted to 15–20% of maternal deaths in the county, despite the fact that it could be easily prevented by aligning law and policy to Kenya’s Constitution to give women and girls access to safe services. But KMET isn’t waiting for the law to be clarified, and has, for a number of years, been bravely providing and supporting safe abortion, including abortion with pills, as part of its comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare services.
Back in Nairobi, Marylize told me she felt a responsibility to translate policy into language that grassroots communities can grasp and act upon: “ … we have sessions [with activists] like we had today, where we sit with a document that has been written in a language that abuses them, that dehumanizes them … and we can read it, understand it, and disrupt those [policy] spaces and tell [the Ministry officials]: ‘you’ve written this document, you say it’s for us but here, here and here, you criminalize us, and we no longer want that. If you want to pass this document, pass it after you’ve changed it to this, this and this.’ We give [the community] that power, we bring it to them … that’s the only way.”
That is why Rachael, Monica, Editar, Marylize and their colleagues across Kenya continue to fight for human rights and justice–respect and dignity, good policies, sufficient budget allocations, and accessible quality services. Monica’s parting words will stay with me: “I always look back where I was, in the teaching hospital, and how I saw women suffer… Women should never die from preventable causes … that is real injustice, beyond explanation.”
In solidarity with the fabulous feminists of Kenya,
Follow KMET on Twitter @Kmet_Kenya