Keep Wanjiku Safe

Every year, thousands of Kenyan women and girls are forced to risk their lives to end a pregnancy. Now they’re fighting back to ensure their safety.

Sign the petition to #KeepWanjikuSafe today.

In December 2013, while most Kenyan school children were celebrating school being out for the holidays, one 14-year-old Kenyan girl found herself in a desperate situation. After being coerced by an older man into her first sexual relationship, she discovered she was pregnant and feared she would be blamed and rejected by her family if she were to reveal her condition.

Wanjiku is not her real name. In Kenya, Wanjiku is symbolic of an ordinary person: any woman, every woman. In a country where one in three girls under 18 experience sexual violence and over 40 percent of pregnancies are unintentional, Wanjiku represents the stories of many.

Living away from home in order to attend a good school, Wanjiku turned to a friend, an older girl, for advice on how to end the pregnancy. The older girl knew of someone nearby who could help. 

This is how Wanjiku found herself doing what hundreds of thousands of women in Kenya are forced to do each year: seeking abortion care from an unqualified provider. 

Although abortion is technically legal in certain circumstances in Kenya, women are largely unable to get legal abortions due to an atmosphere of intimidation and confusion generated by mixed messages from the government.

“Without clear standards and guidelines, many qualified health workers refuse to treat women for fear of possible prosecution,” says Jade Maina, executive director of the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH), a Kenyan women’s health rights group advocating on Wanjiku’s behalf. “Abortion has been pushed back to being a clandestine activity and a risky venture for health care providers—hence exorbitant fees that women cannot afford—making a woman’s chances of falling into the hands of a quack higher.”

In 2010, Kenya’s new constitution eased the country’s severe restrictions on abortion, legalizing 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 death and injury due to unsafe abortion. 

In 2013, however, the Ministry of Health withdrew the established standards and guidelines for reducing unsafe abortion and then issued a memo a year later stating that “the Constitution of Kenya 2010 is clear that abortion on demand is illegal”—without clarifying the grounds under which abortion is legal. The memo also imposed a ban on abortion trainings for health care professionals and threatened punishment of those who continue to receive trainings.

But without trained professionals, approximately a quarter of the estimated 465,000 illegal abortions performed in Kenya each year result in severe complications and hospitalizations. Thousands of women and girls do not survive—or are injured for life.

Tragically, Wanjiku is one of these girls. Two days after seeking an abortion from a “doctor” in the backroom of a local pharmacy, she began vomiting and bleeding heavily. She was taken to a hospital where she was found to be experiencing kidney failure. 

After she was stabilized, she was detained by the hospital because her mother—a poor tea picker—could not pay the hospital bills. There, Wanjiku was forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor, where her health again deteriorated.

Six months later, she continues to fight for her life. If she survives, she will face dialysis and an eventual kidney transplant. Her life will never be the same.

This week the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a case on behalf of Wanjiku and her mother, as well as two women’s rights advocates and the Federation of Women Lawyers–Kenya, affirming that the Kenyan Ministry of Health is undermining women’s constitutional rights and contributing to cases of maternal death by denying countless women access to safe, legal abortion.

“It is time for the Ministry of Health to take decisive action to protect the health, lives, families, and future of Kenyan women before more women are needlessly harmed by its policies,” says the Center’s regional director for Africa, Evelyne Opondo, who is also the head litigator in the case before Kenya’s High Court. “Women are dying, and, even more alarmingly, many of these deaths are eminently preventable. The Kenyan government must restore standards and guidelines for medical professionals to provide abortion care as soon as possible.”

Widespread sexual violence against women and a dearth of contraception access makes the need for safe, legal abortion all the more urgent in Kenya, yet abortion remains highly stigmatized across the country due to conservative religious beliefs.

As the Center pursues policy reform in the Kenyan court, groups on the ground such as TICAH are drawing national and international attention to the issue by sharing Wanjiku’s story and petitioning Director of Medical Services Nicholas Muraguri to take the necessary steps to keep her—and the thousands of other Wanjikus across Kenya—safe.

Add your voice to the call to #KeepWanjikuSafe today.

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