Photograph — Pulitzer Center

Abortion is illegal in Kenya except for pregnancies resulting from rape; those can be terminated by experts if it endangers the victim’s life in any way. On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Kenya’s High Court established a landmark ruling that gives rape survivors the right to an abortion, as it ordered authorities to pay $29,000 in damages to the mother of a teenager who died after a botched abortion. The 15-year-old who was raped, died as a result of a backstreet abortion after she became pregnant in 2014.

The girl’s mother filed a petition in 2015 along with the Federation of Women Lawyers, stating that Kenyan authorities failed to give her daughter the option of a legalized safe abortion service and proper post-abortion care. She also asked the government to implement measures for access to safe abortions. Yesterday, she was awarded three million Ksh in damages over poor post-abortion care at a government hospital along with the reinstatement of guidelines on how to procure a legal safe abortion.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution permits safe abortion services when the life or health of a woman is in danger and in cases of emergency. But Kenyan women have persistently being denied this service along with other essential reproductive health services due to a 2013 decision by the Director of Medical Services(DMS) to withdraw the government’s “Guidelines for Reducing Morbidity and Mortality from Unsafe Abortion” and ban safe abortion training for health care professionals. Yesterday, the court ruled that the decision by the DMS violated the constitution, the right life, professional information, consumer protection and scientific progress.

In Kenya, a largely conservative Christian nation, there is a prevailing stigma around abortion. Also, the conflict on service delivery policies resulting from the withdrawal of the government’s guidelines to give safe abortion left health professionals afraid of attending to women asking for abortion services and consequently driven thousands of women and girls to seek care from quacks, endangering their lives. According to a health report, an estimated 464,000 induced abortions occurred in Kenya in 2102(the most recent data available), that’s almost half a million abortions in a year. One in four of these women and girls suffered complications such as high fever, sepsis, shock and organ failure.  

The 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014 KDHS) reported that only 53.4 percent of Kenyan women are able to access modern contraceptives, with a low rate of 36.8 percent of adolescents ages 15 to 19 using modern contraceptives. Also less than two-thirds of pregnant women below the age of 20 obtained delivery assistance from a skilled medical practitioner. Most of these women are from poor urban and rural settlements; they cannot afford private healthcare and face discrimination when they seek treatment in public hospitals.

“Pregnancy resulting from rape or defilement, if in the opinion of a trained medical profession poses a danger to life or the health – that is physical, mental and social well-being of the mother – may be terminated under … sections of the constitution,” said Justice Aggrey Muchelule at the High Court yesterday.

Evelyne Opondo, senior regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights said the case of the deceased teenager is a window into the plight of many other women and girls who have no place to turn, and no access to information or reproductive health services. 

“I know this is what my daughter would have wanted to see. That justice is served, and that Kenyan women and girls in need of emergency health services including abortion, regardless of their social economic status, are able to access safe and legal abortion services,”  said PKM , mother of the deceased.

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