by Kenne Mwikya
The August school holiday is a month in which school-going kids can blow off steam after the longest school term of the year. It is a time of heightened apprehension among parents seeking to constantly monitor their children, parents who are suspicious of their kids or suspicious of the world in which they find themselves and their kids in. I remember attending an inordinate amount of Christian “youth camps” during the August holiday. Though there wasn’t any camping at all in any of these camps (fine by me, I dislike the outdoors), I was still very much invested in attending them. It is through them that I gained my first ideas about drug use, sex and relationships and the emotional turmoil that was adolescence. I have come to eschew everything I learned from these youth camps only remaining with what these spaces taught me about the inculcation of sexism, homophobia and unquestioning deference as the means through which subjects approach institutions such as the church and state.
In these camps, I was never taught about safe(r) sex; about sexual relationships other than between men and women for the purposes of procreation; about emotional relationships or solidarity other than between persons of the same gender or that marriage was not an endgame in all relationships. I was taught about girls who had sex before marriage only to be shunned by their male sexual partners and wracked by feelings of shame and guilt. I was taught that sex invariably led to pregnancy and that girls who had abortions would never get the chance to have children again and that it was God who indignantly took away this possibility. All this was confirmed in many things I watched on TV and also in the constant regurgitation of what we learned in these youth camps.
My mind would have been made up on all these things if not for my queer “questioning” and the realization that there were biases against women in everything I was taught, biases that were wildly contradictory. For instance, women bore the brunt of shaming and ostracism when found to have engaged in premarital sex or having procured an abortion even though the women in our stories engaged in sexual intercourse with men and were normally forced by their male sexual partners to have the abortion. This, along with the erasure of queer possibilities (something I will possibly never recover from), did not make sense for me and I am lucky to have grown up to understand why.
This week, the Ministry of Health published a report on unsafe abortion in Kenya. The highlights of the report, other than what has appeared in Kenyan news media put the blame for the high incidence of unsafe abortion on lack of access to contraception or sex education and unintended pregnancy. “Stigma, inadequate information on sexuality and cultural pressure also hinder contraceptive use among women and girls.” Possible solutions to these problems include “improved access to high-quality comprehensive abortion care which includes counselling; safe and accessible abortion care; rapid and accessible treatment of incomplete abortions and other complications, contraceptive and family planning services; and other reproductive health services (a constitutional right afforded to all women) at all levels of the country’s health system”.
In responding to the high incidence of complications arising from unsafe abortion, the Kenyatta National Hospital has a whole ward catering to women suffering from complications due to unsafe abortion. The Ministry of Health has also developed a guideline for the reduction of medical complications and deaths arising from unsafe abortion. These developments precariously go hand in hand with an unsympathetic legal regime. The constitution only allows abortion in case of grave danger to the life or health of a pregnant woman and the Penal Code outlaws it. A news report from roughly two weeks ago reports that a young woman was almost lynched by a mob for attempting to procure an abortion in the Mathare informal settlement.* There is a court case pending against her, and she is out on bond and in a safe house on account of the attack.
Patriarchy’s hand is everywhere on this report: in the refusal or foot-dragging by the state to provide comprehensive access to contraceptives or sex/sexuality education to women; in women compelled by circumstance or coercion by male partners to procure unsafe abortion; in single/divorced and economically marginalized women driven to choose unsafe abortion over hardened economic prospects.
The report speaks powerfully to the effects of policing women’s bodies by means of state and societal withdrawal of women’s right to bodily integrity and self determination. This is coupled with the re-emphasis on choice as an opportunity afforded to all individual citizens without regard to gendered circumstances. It goes without saying that women feature in this report as highly individualized beings, having no support system at a time of increased vulnerability and precarity as well as responding to threats or possible negative outcomes of going ahead and giving birth or even having an abortion.
The refusal of the right to bodily integrity through the criminalization of abortion and the behaviour by men and the state to appropriate women’s bodies without accountability or consent (rape, refusal to use prophylactics during sex, withholding of access to contraceptives either economically or by use of force, the cultural status of women as essentially being child-bearers) drives a large number of women to unsafe abortion. Unsafe abortion strides the balance between criminalized activity – criminalized women who seek to make a sometimes drastic choice about their bodily integrity, health and future wellbeing – and the lack of accountability by men or the state on the consequences of their (mis)use of women’s bodies. Women who undergo this abuse by men are most times socially, emotionally, physically or economically vulnerable, their sense of vulnerability being exactly what attracted male “interest” and abuse in the first place. Between a rock and a hard place and undergoing a heightened sense of vulnerability, women are asked to choose whether or not to procure an abortion.
When I first came to knowledge about the high incidence of abortion (both safe and unsafe) in Kenya, I was heartened by the idea that women were taking control of their bodies and making bold decisions about their future. When I first heard about the KNH Post-Abortion Care ward and that thousands of women die annually due to unsafe abortion complications in Kenya, I was indignant at what I saw as societal and state obstinacy in the face of an issue which badly needed to be addressed. I now realize that though legal reform with the aim of decriminalizing and regulating abortion is not enough. With abortion, there is a bigger issue broadly anchored in class and gendered dynamics apparent in Kenyan society in which poorer women bear the brunt of reproducing labour for the economy.
Anecdotally, I have heard stories of middle class women procuring an abortion after much consultation with relatives and close friends and medical personnel before making the decision of having the abortion at a health facility conducted by a doctor. The stories emphasise the ease of the procedure and the fact that it’s “affordable”. I once listened to a discussion on Classic 105FM in which medical practitioners and women called to talk about their experiences in having or conducting abortions. While women callers raised a myriad of issues (mistimed or unintended pregnancies, health complications), doctors spoke about their duties to patients and more commonly “clients”. These stories, while in no way indicative of how middle class communities approach the question of abortion, invariably obfuscate the untold suffering of poorer women who are in possession of little access to information about unsafe abortion or health care providers who can ensure a safe procedure. Poorer women, girls, women from rural areas and informal settlements normally have no one to turn to, no information to act on and no point of reference other than coercion and compulsion from the society and usually their male sexual partners/perpetrators.
I am a feminist honed on the idea that every person has the right to have the paramount decision on her body and wellbeing. I also believe that women have the last word on whether or not to have an abortion but that this choice should be informed and rational and speak to a woman’s social, economic and emotional prospects in the future. I am also a feminist for the idea of support and solidarity for women who choose to have an abortion and for those who choose not to with the end game being to completely eradicate shaming abusing women for the choices they make. As an African queer feminist, I recognise that cultural assumptions about the role of women, about male accountability and how these two things are tied to how the state works invariably make many decisions for women as regards the question of unsafe abortion, that women are thrust to make many decisions before they even know it, when crucial information is denied to them and replaced with something much more harmful.
* This appears to have been a segment on the news, nothing showed up on online searches so the video was either not uploaded or featured as a clip in a roundup news segment.
Kenne Mwikya blogs at http://kennemwikya.wordpress.com