U.N. Committee: Kenya Should Decriminalize Abortion in All Circumstances, Ensure Reproductive Health Services for Adolescents

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(PRESS RELEASE) The government of Kenya should decriminalize abortion in all circumstances and ensure adolescents have access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health information and services, according to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (U.N. CRC).

The U.N. CRC recommendations call for Kenya to expand access to safe and legal abortion as well as “review its legislation with a view to ensure that girls have access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services and that their views are always heard and respected in abortion decisions.” The committee also voiced concerns over discrimination adolescents face when seeking sexual and reproductive health information and services, citing lack of quality health care services tailored to them.  The Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a letter to the U.N. CRC that highlighted how adolescents in Kenya are being denied modern contraceptives by health workers based on personal objections and how pervasive gender stereotypes, such as adolescent girls carrying condoms being perceived as promiscuous, negatively impacts access to reproductive health services.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution legalized safe abortion services when the life or health of a woman is in danger and in cases of emergency—a measure aimed at decreasing the country’s high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity resulting from unsafe abortion. However, Kenyan women today continue to be denied essential reproductive health services—including quality maternal health care and safe and legal abortion services. This is largely due to a decision in December 2013 by the Director of Medical Services to arbitrarily withdraw the government’s “Guidelines for Reducing Morbidity and Mortality from Unsafe Abortion” and a ban on safe abortion trainings for health care professionals, which has led to great confusion as to when legal abortions can be provided.

“Every woman and girl in Kenya must be empowered to make her own informed reproductive health choices and get the quality health care services she needs, when she needs it,” said Evelyne Opondo, regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “These deeply discriminatory practices continue to stand in the way of adolescents making these choices, putting their health and lives at risk. The government of Kenya needs to immediately adopt guidelines for safe abortion services without any further delay and ensure all adolescents have access to unbiased reproductive health services and information.”

In June 2015, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a case against the Ministry of Health in the High Court of Kenya for undermining women’s constitutional rights and contributing to cases of maternal death by denying countless women, including rape survivors, access to safe, legal abortion.

According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014 KDHS), only about half (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. Kenyan adolescents have a higher risk of pregnancy complications yet are least likely to receive adequate ante-natal, delivery and post-natal care. The 2014 KDHS also notes that less than two-thirds of women below the age of 20 obtained delivery assistance from a skilled provider such as a doctor, nurse or midwife.

In a letter to the U.N. CRC, the Center highlighted a number of human rights violations affecting adolescent girls, including lack of access to contraceptive information and services, lack of access to maternal health care, lack of access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care, and violence against adolescent girls including forced genital mutilation.

In its recommendations to Kenya, U.N. CRC notes how the rates of early pregnancy and of maternal mortality among adolescents have remained high due to unsafe abortion, restrictive and inconsistent laws on abortion that undermine adolescents’ access to safe and legal abortion and post-abortion care. The committee also voiced concerns regarding violence against adolescent girls in the home as well as in educational and health institutions. U.N. CRC recommendations to Kenya include:

  • Reinforcing efforts to prevent teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and provide care for those affected
  • Fully implementing free maternity health care and combat discrimination against pregnant teenagers, adolescent mothers and their children
  • Systematically providing comprehensive information about HIV/AIDS and sex education to youth, including confidential counselling and testing and the promotion of modern contraceptive use
  • Developing a comprehensive national strategy and a national coordinating framework to prevent and address all forms of violence against children

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than a decade across the continent of Africa to advance women’s access to reproductive health care through law and policy reform. The Center filed cases against Pumwani Maternity Hospital and Bungoma County Hospital for the ill-treatment of women seeking quality maternal health care.

The Center and the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya collaborated on two reports Failure to Deliver: Violations of Women's Human Rights in Kenyan Health Facilities and At Risk which document how Kenya’s health care sector suffers from systemic and widespread problems that deny women quality reproductive health care, including subjecting women seeking maternal health services to HIV testing without their knowledge or consent. In 2010, the Center published the report In Harm’s Way, which documented the devastating effects of the criminalization of abortion in Kenya before the law was reformed, and demonstrated how the weaknesses in Kenya’s health care system are further exacerbated when it comes to a reproductive health care service that is perceived as illegal and highly stigmatized.

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