A few weeks ago, I opened my inbox to find threats of damnation and dire consequences. It was one of those emails, making the rounds in Kenya these days, filled with warnings about abortion, moral decay and a Muslim takeover that would surely result if Kenyans approve a new constitution for our country.
For several decades, Kenyans have been involved in the search for a new constitution. After a long and uncertain process, a draft constitution was finalized in May 2010 and a referendum on the same was held today. Several surveys and opinion polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Kenyans, more than 60 percent, approve of the new constitution.
The push for a new constitution has been driven by a strong desire to end bad governance and impunity, promote the rule of law, prevent theft of national resources, deal with gross inequities and serious violations of human rights, and promote the pursuit of a life of dignity for all Kenyans. So when did all this change? When did abortion become the main focus of the debate on the Kenyan constitution and when did Kenya become a battle ground for conservative American groups and politicians?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: the draft constitution does not permit abortion, except when the mother’s health is at risk. Article 26 (4) says,“Abortion is not permitted unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law”
This is not much different than Kenya’s current law, which allows for abortion when a doctor thinks it is necessary to save the life of the mother. Opponents say that the new wording opens the door for legalisation of abortion in the future, even though no other legislation can be made that overturns or contradicts the constitution. This argument is pushed mainly by evangelical Kenyan churches, with strong support from American conservatives.
They talk about protecting the “faith values” of the people and the moral and ethical integrity of the African woman. I wonder which African woman they are referring to. Is it the one ravaged by war and rape in the Congo and other conflict areas, or the one weighed down by repressive cultural traditions that violate human rights? Is it the woman dying from preventable pregnancy complications? Or could we be talking about the one who is discriminated against and dispossessed by national laws that deny her a life of dignity and treat her like a second class citizen in her own country?
For several years, our democracy has matured — opening up space for discourse on social and political issues, and leading to greater participation of citizens in the policy-making process. However on matters of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), even the limited space that existed has been shrinking.
Rational discourse on SRHR has been drowned out by the loud voices of well-organised conservative groups that seem to have gained ground in Kenya during the Bush years. SRHR is trivialized and seen from a moral, ethical and lately religious lens through which every discussion starts and ends with abortion.
For example, three U.S. lawmakers - Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida – sent a letter to the State Department questioning U.S. support of the constitution process in Kenya.
Several conservative Christian groups have also joined the fray. The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson, has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” funding the Reds (No) campaign to reject the proposed constitution, according to Jay Sekulow, the Centre’s chief counsel. The group is opposed to the clause that allows termination of pregnancy if the mother’s life is in danger.
Every year thousands upon thousands of African women die from pregnancy-related complications – a death toll higher than that from all the major conflicts in Africa combined. The sheer magnitude of these deaths is heartrending, yet I have never heard these groups talk about this or support proven solutions to save women’s lives, like access to contraception, skilled birth attendants, and emergency obstetric care. As this debate rages, I ask why the same zeal has not been applied to saving the lives of these women, or why right-wing America is so silent about sexual violence, female genital cutting and other practices that confine African and Kenyan women to a life of misery and indignity.
As a Kenyan woman and a committed Christian, I have been at a loss in trying to understand why anyone would oppose a new constitution that would provide Kenya with a framework to fight corruption, ensure the establishment of a more equitable distribution of resources and promote respect for human rights. Why in God’s name would an American congressman be opposed to strengthening basic social services for the citizens of Kenya? A Kenyan constitution with a robust Bill of Rights that promotes the pursuit of a life of dignity and equality is good for Kenya and good for America.
I have come to the conclusion that the Americans opposing this constitution are very selective in their defense of the sanctity of life. Their agenda clearly has nothing to do with Kenyan women, our rights, or our lives. Take your battle somewhere else, because Kenya will get a new constitution this week.