50.50: Opinion

Why ‘pro-family’ groups ignore pregnant African women dying during COVID-19

CitizenGo doesn’t want women to terminate pregnancies even if their lives are at risk, so no wonder it’s ignoring mistreatment of pregnant women.

Lydia Namubiru Arya Karijo
10 September 2020
A pregnant teenager in Kibera Slums, Nairobi, Kenya. Donwilson Odhiambo/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

So-called ‘pro-family’ campaigners who glorify motherhood and encourage women to give birth (and often also oppose the use of contraception) have been strangely unmoved by the traumas experienced by women giving birth during COVID-19.

Under lockdowns across Africa, pregnant women have missed check-ups, been denied care at health facilities, resorted to risky home births and died in childbirth. In Kenya, one woman named Vidia Nduku died after boda boda drivers refused to take her to hospital, fearing trouble with the police during a dawn-to-dusk curfew.

For ‘pro-family’ campaigners, sex should lead to pregnancy and pregnancy to childbirth. You’d think they would be speaking out about increasingly risky pregnancies. Instead, it is human rights groups like the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network and Women’s Link Worldwide that are defending pregnant women.

They have filed a court case that argues, in part, that the Kenyan state failed to provide “clear and comprehensive information” in response to reports by “a number of media outlets that women and girls were failing to access health facilities.”

Meanwhile ‘pro-family’ groups seem to be ignoring the very people who are walking their chosen pregnancy path at a time when sweeping state actions to control the coronavirus pandemic are cutting women’s access to maternity care. Why? These groups have not shut down during the pandemic; they’ve been quite busy.

The Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, for example, has hosted webinars to rally people against a proposed Reproductive Healthcare Bill, which they say will legalise abortion. (In reality, all the bill does is reiterate what Kenyan law already allows – the termination of pregnancy when a woman’s life is threatened).

Kathy Kageni-Oganga, a preacher who erected controversial anti-abortion billboards in Nairobi in 2019, has also actively campaigned against the proposed legislation. On 16 August she urged her congregation to write to the senate to oppose it and later celebrated on Facebook when the bill was halted for further public hearings.

Foreign groups have also been involved in this recent battle – including CitizenGo, a- Madrid-based organisation that has close ties to the far-right in Spain. In Kenya, it has mobilised opposition to the bill and its local representative, Ann Kioko, was invited to address the parliamentary committee considering the legislation.

Campaigns across Africa

Based in Nairobi, and with a continent-wide campaigning brief, Kioko has emerged as one of Kenya’s most vocal and active ‘pro-family’ activists.

With a handful of other protestors, she has stood outside parliament picketing against women legislators, Esther Passaris and Susan Kihika, who introduced the Reproductive Healthcare Bill. She has also spent time in Kibera handing out baby-sized dolls splashed with red paint, then sharing pictures on social media to ‘prove’ that Kenyan women are against abortion. She has also appeared frequently on local TV channels, as a guest on talk shows and an interviewee at protests.

In June, Kioko presented a CitizenGo online petition against the bill to parliament, saying it was signed by 20,000 people. The trouble with this is: the group’s petitions, while aiming to influence local policy, can be signed by anyone anywhere in the world and they don’t show you where their signatories are based.

This week in parliament, Kioko said the petition was signed by “citizens”. But it would be surprising if 20,000 Kenyans had actually signed it: CitizenGo’s Africa Twitter account has fewer than 750 followers and its Facebook page has fewer than 5,000 likes – and it’s not clear where in the world those followers are based either.

It’s not just the Kenyan bill that has kept Kioko busy. Other recent CitizenGo Africa petitions target health policy in the name of pro-family values across the continent.

One of these petitions targeted Namibian health minister Ester Muinjangue after she tabled a motion in parliament to discuss decriminalisating abortion services. Another petition opposes comprehensive sexuality education in South African schools.

CitizenGo Africa has also targeted international government aid for sexual and reproductive health in Africa. It launched a petition against Canada's international development minister, Karina Gould, for earmarking $8.9 million for access to contraception, and a similar petition against Swedish aid.

Yet these “pro-family” campaigners seem to have been unmoved by the maternal health traumas faced by African women who have done exactly what they seem to desire for all sexually-active women: pregnancy, and childbirth.

Ongoing tracking by openDemocracy has found reports of such traumas – with deadly consequences for women – in at least six African countries. But ‘pro-family’ activists have not raised their voices or started petitions about this.

It’s not like they refrained from questioning official responses to the coronavirus altogether. CitizenGo Africa campaigned for the reopening of churches in Kenya, for example. Early on, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still largely restricted to China, it also launched a petition against flights from China entering Kenya.

Could it be that these campaigners don’t care about women’s well-being and only want to control their bodies by reducing their reproductive health options so they give birth at whatever cost to their health? It certainly seems that way.

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