“Please listen to Sauti Sol’s latest song Nerea. So done with it.” A close friend sent this message to me on Tuesday morning last week. Later in the evening, I watched the video with yet another friend. We were both irritated, and it has taken me a week to decide why.
The song is from a man to a woman he impregnated called Nerea. He is imploring her not to abort her pregnancy, citing that when a child is born, God also brings “his/her plate”, meaning that God provides, and that should she not want to raise the child, she can give it to him to raise it instead. They also provide a list of the people the child could grow up to be like, such as Lupita Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Miriam Makeba, Barack Obama among others.
This makes it easy to write off the song, as it is based on a series of bad arguments. I was convinced that someone had paid them to sing this song, or, that they were doing it to go viral.
Sure, the child could grow up to be great, or he/she could become Hitler, Idd Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, or Bloody Mary. Appeals to God are also not a good place to start, seeing as everyone has their own views on God – religion is a poor base for an argument that is supposed to be universal. The idea that the only reason women get abortions is to avoid raising the children or because of lack of support from the father is incomplete. Yes, in some cases, this is true; however, the costs even before birth are astounding. The cost of delivering a child at many hospitals in Kenya exceeds KES 100,000, and this does not include the numerous tests and checks that happen beforehand. Delivery at public hospitals may be free, but the quality of those services leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive to carry around another human being for nine months: if one is young and unmarried, it leads to shunning and shaming, as well as the potential for abuse from partners. The woman’s mobility and ability to work and earn are also reduced. It is also likely that she could die while giving birth. Giving the child up to the father after birth, or for adoption, does not solve these issues.
It may be argued that the song is merely the opinion of six men, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if we don’t like it we should just accept and move on, or ignore it. Unfortunately, the song has become the basis of a timely debate in Kenya over pro-choice vs pro-life arguments, reproductive health, and the rights of women over their bodies. As much as I would love to ignore this song and pretend it never happened, it did. I also believe that people are not entitled to their opinions – they are entitled to informed opinions, which should be challenged if they get in the way of other people’s lives and well-being.
The topic of abortion is emotive, and rightly so, because it cuts across several human phenomena: religion, sexual intercourse, gender/sexuality and policy. Several conversations have been had about women and the rights over their bodies, the rightness/wrongness of abortion, whether it should be legalized, the rights of the man in case of a pregnancy, and how these interact with religious views. However, one conversation that we are not having enough, which I feel is the most important one, is on reproductive health. What about Nerea? Sure, we know she wants to abort her pregnancy. But do we know why?
As at 2012, it was estimated that over 450,000 women terminate pregnancies each year in Kenya. In 2012, nearly 120,000 women sought medical assistance due to post-abortion complications. Almost all of these abortions are carried out in very unsafe conditions. More than 70% of the women who seek post-abortion care are not using any method of contraception prior to becoming pregnant. Among the women who sought post-abortion care in health facilities, 64% were married or living with a partner, 27.8% had never been married, and 7.5% were divorced. 16.5% were girls aged 10 – 19 and 31.7% were aged 20 – 24. Unsafe abortions contribute to 35% of all maternal deaths. 43% of births in the preceding five years were also reported by women to be unwanted or poorly timed.
Why are so many women finding themselves with unintended pregnancies?
I believe that our poor reproductive health practices are to blame. Women are either ignorant of their options, or lack access to contraceptives. Indeed, contraceptives only have a 46% prevalence rate in Kenya, and unmet need ranges from 26 – 78% in many parts. This can largely be attributed to misinformation: many people believe that contraceptives lead to deformed babies, drastically reduced sex drive and promiscuity. Despite major efforts towards family planning education, these myths still prevail, and lead to women and their partners making poor choices, or no choices at all, regarding their reproductive health. Over 30% of women have never discussed fertility issues with their partners.
I believe that we have been focusing our efforts on the wrong conversation. See, once a woman is pregnant, the zygote/foetus is in her body, and no matter the man’s or society’s view, she alone makes the ultimate decision since the zygote/foetus resides in her body, and directly affects her health, well-being and livelihood. It goes without question: a woman’s body is her own, regardless of the circumstances. A person’s body is all they can actually call their own on this planet, hence the concept of bodily integrity.
Even when someone is dying from the loss of blood or a failing kidney, the people who can donate blood or a kidney have to consent to doing so, even when it is a life or death situation. No one can force them to do it, no matter what we think is right. In the same vein, organs from a dead body cannot be taken without the person’s consent while he/she was alive. Even corpses have bodily integrity. It therefore follows that ultimately, no matter what we say or do, pregnant women will have the final decision, and no amount of burying our heads in the sand can change that. This is why this argument is called pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. One does not have to agree with abortion, one simply has to recognize that the choice belongs to the woman in question, and that they simply have no control over it.
If people want to stop abortion, it would be wise to turn to methods that actually work. Rather than wait until we get to the stage of reproduction where all we do is fight based on pro-life vs pro-choice, religion, among other arguments, we should focus our energies on ensuring that women do not have to make this decision.
The biggest problem in Kenya when it comes to reproductive health is an information problem, followed by access to contraceptives, as illustrated by the statistics above. We should ensure that we teach people from a very young age about safe sex, and provide affordable contraceptives for those who are sexually active. Many young people are sexually active, and ill-equipped to handle it, with very little sex education beyond what is touched upon in biology classes. This leads to many unwanted teen pregnancies. We also cannot continue to castigate women who abort while railing against contraceptives and opposing sex education for the young, especially through our religious institutions.
Religious institutions often claim that their opposition to contraceptive usage is rooted in the belief that sex is for marriage, and that people who are married should be able to enjoy the “full benefits” of sex without using contraceptives. This creates a rather idyllic view of marriage and the sexual environment within it, which we know to be false: 64% of the women seeking post-abortion care are married or living with a partner. This echoes the HIV/AIDS statistics that have the highest rate of new infections in Kenya among married people. Why are the marriages that these institutions so strongly root for as a safe sexual environment so unsafe? Is it because of false expectations and misinformation? Is it because of the demonization of sexual pleasure? Deep introspection on this, beyond cries of “We are living in the end times!” may prove to be a better endeavour for religious institutions.
It is clear that laws against abortion, which Kenya has, do not stop abortion. They simply make it illegal, thus more unsafe for women, leading to many deaths, and in the case of survivors, many injuries, because of resorting to dangerous and painful methods to end their pregnancies. The quality of these services is usually poor due to the lack of regulation, and even when women experience abuse during the procedure, they cannot report it because it is illegal. The number of abortions is not lowered by this stance – the only thing that happens is that more women die because of it. It would be far better to decriminalize it (note that this is different from legalization; it simply means that the criminal penalties attributed to an act are no longer in effect). In countries where abortion has been decriminalized and contraceptive use is steady/rising, abortion rates reduce dramatically, and the injuries/deaths resulting from it drop as a result of regulation.
It is important to have women’s voices at the front and centre of this debate, as it primarily concerns them. Yes, it is important that other voices get heard, and yes, we may not like what they have to say, but to fail to put “Nerea’s voice” at the centre of this debate is akin to white people calling a conference to discuss black people’s issues but not having any black people speaking. It is preposterous.
Sauti Sol and Amos & Josh did not set out to sing a song about safe sex and reproductive health, but perhaps such a song is much more needed in Kenya at this point.