OPINION: Time to stop sacrificing lives of Kenyan women and girls at the altar of religious fundamentalism

By Venoranda Kuboka, Josephine Achieng and Maureen Kemunto We don’t talk about religious fundamentalism enough, especially its negative effects on the rights, health and dignity of women in Kenya. Religious fundamentalism is one of the most pervasive social maladies in Kenyan today, especially to the lives of women because it has stigmatized, restricted and criminalized access to essential reproductive health services. A common scenario that plays out on our news headlines often follows a familiar script: a girl gets pregnant because her religion looks down on contraceptives; she seeks an abortion from a quack because she would not dare seek safer options from her parents or community; the girl ends up in the emergency room, or worse, dead. Earlier this year, a 17-year old girl in Migori County was raped but failed to report the matter to the local police because she had seen too many stories of police who cared much about what the woman was wearing instead of finding the rapist. When she discovered that she was pregnant, she terminated the pregnancy but developed complications. She was then referred to hospital for treatment after a botched unsafe abortion. That’s when the police learned of her situation and arrested her. Also Read: 15-year-old girl arrested for procuring abortion, dumping foetus in toilet Unsafe abortion in Kenya is recognized as a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality. A study done by the Ministry of Health estimates that more than 20,000 girls and women are hospitalised every year in public facilities due to abortion-related complications. Notably, incomplete abortions also account for a large proportion of gynecological admissions in public health facilities. Another study by the Africa Population and Health research Center (APHRC) revealed that the cost of treating unsafe abortion ranges from Ksh. 433million to Ksh. 533million annually. Though seldom mentioned among the causes, religious fundamentalism continues to influence and enable an environment where these statistics are the norm. Religious fundamentalism is a strict adherence to traditional beliefs and sacred texts and not giving room to any other differing perspectives. Fundamentalism is propagated by state or non-state actors who strategically manipulate religion to acquire or retain power for purposes of controlling or limiting girls and women’s rights. Also Read: Atheists support Susan Kihika’s Reproductive Health Bill This greatly undermines gender justice because it opposes bodily autonomy among girls and young women. It rejects basic human rights and perceives it as unresponsive to faith and against cultural norms. This is contrary to the fundamental spirit and essence of many religions and faiths that promote justice, equality and compassion. In Kenya, religious fundamentalism greatly suppresses bodily autonomy and promotes control of women’s bodies and their sexuality through external, normally male, authorities. It denies girls the right to education, sexual and reproductive health services, imposes decisions on women on when and who they should marry, controls the number of children they should have and how they should practice their sexuality. Moreover, fundamentalism propagates a negative narrative about sex and sexuality and perceives it as a sinful act which limits candid conversations about sexual and reproductive health in religious institutions. Sexuality and expression of sexuality is strictly controlled, often through the institution of marriage. Unmarried women are prevented from accessing sexual and reproductive health services through interventions by religious authorities, who serve as gatekeepers of religious cultural practices. Access to sexual reproductive health and rights is paramount in ensuring we achieve a world that is equal, just and inclusive. This is stressed in the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) program of action 1994, the BEIJING Platform of Action 1995, Sustainable Development Goal (5) and the Maputo Protocol. Also Read: Teenage pregnancies rise in parts of Kenya as lockdown shuts schools In our local context, Article 43(1) of the Kenyan constitution guarantees girls and women the highest attainable standards of health, which includes the right to health care services including reproductive health. Additionally, Article 26(4) gives provisions for termination of pregnancy, i.e. in the opinion of a trained medical professional, there is need for emergency treatment, if the life of the pregnant person is in danger, and if permitted by any written law. To achieve gender equality, it is paramount to employ a human rights-based approach which respects bodily autonomy, choice and inclusion. We cannot blindly bend to the whims of religious dictates that many women and girls often do not personally even subscribe to. Also Read: Biden signs memorandum reversing Trump abortion access restrictions We need to address the religious forces and biases affecting girls and women’s reproductive health. It is time for the Ministry of Health to show that they respect women rights in Kenya by ensuring that policies are developed and implemented without religious biases and influence. Being a secular state, our government should strive to, and be seen to, develop policies based on research, evidence and data. Finally, the Ministry of Health should meaningfully engage girls, young women and civil society organisations in the policy development processes. It is only by including the voices of those most affected by proposed laws do we ensure that the laws will serve the interest of those most affected. Venoranda Kuboka is the team leader at Youth Changers Kenya (YCK) while Josephine Achieng and Maureen Kemunto are reproductive health advocates

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