50.50: Opinion

‘Unsafe abortion is a class issue’ explains Kenyan activist Ruth Mumbi

Kenya’s reproductive health bill is under attack from internationally connected conservative lobby groups. Mumbi explains what’s at stake.

Ruth Mumbi
14 September 2020, 9.24am

I’m a community activist working in the informal settlements of Nairobi on issues of class oppression and the economic empowerment of vulnerable women. This matter of the Reproductive Health Bill touches me directly as an activist at the forefront of rescuing young girls who have been defiled or, raped – some have even become pregnant through rape. I’ve been working closely with survivors of unsafe abortion who get a lot of stigmatisation, trauma, are labelled with all sorts of names. I’ve also worked with sex workers.

For me, this bill empowers women. I was born and raised in the slums, so I’ve watched people that I know, young women that I even used to play with as a child, being victims – some dying from backstreet abortions, some getting complications, some ending up having to live with a disability. And I’ve been trying to get services. We are from a community where even getting access to information about reproductive rights is difficult. Women young and old, they don’t have power to even control their bodies, their bodies are controlled by men.

‘It is up to Kenyan women to decide what they want to do with their bodies’

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So this debate on reproductive health rights is very critical and emotive for this community. We need laws that can empower women; for me and other activists and for women who are affected by these issues. In most cases, it’s a class issue – because unsafe abortion, maternal death and the lack of proper information doesn’t affect elite women, it affects poor women living in the informal settlements. So for us, having laws that give us that power, it’s really critical, because it’s going to save a whole generation from these deaths that occur due to backstreet abortions.

For me, the law comes at a time when we need it most. And I think it’s important for international organisations to leave this debate to Kenyan women to decide what they want to do with their bodies. This is a Kenyan agenda: we are the people who are struggling, we are the people who are dying – so people coming to infiltrate our politics is not even proper. They should leave this to the Kenyan women, and especially to the women living in low-income areas, to have that power to decide on whatever they want to do with their bodies.

Safe spaces and education

For young girls to be safe, we need to continue educating them and giving them tactics on how to deal with situations that might occur. This is the work that community activists have been doing, creating safe spaces for young girls to come and just have a talk, to be educated and to learn more about reproductive matters. A lot of girls in informal settlements are more vulnerable because they don’t have information.

We don’t have that parent-to-child relationship because, coming from an African context, from a conservative community, people are so religious that there are certain subjects that parents can’t talk to young girls about. This is why we create safe spaces for young girls: to create alternative ways to educate them and create that rapport and that confidence and to teach them how to take care of themselves.

Each year in Kenya, 6,300 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, with unsafe abortion responsible for almost 17% of maternal deaths. The Reproductive Healthcare Bill would govern access to family planning, safe motherhood, termination of pregnancy, reproductive health of adolescents and assisted reproduction. Religious leaders and ultra-conservative lobby groups, such as CitizenGo, oppose the bill – particularly the element on abortion.

This is an edited transcript of Ruth Mumbi's comments on openDemocracy's webinar, 'The global war on women's rights in Kenya' on 10 September 2020

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