Kenya’s Pro-Choice Movement Faces Emboldened Threatsin a Post-Roe World
Reporting from the ground in Nairobi, Sian Norris meets the pro-abortion activists fighting for reproductive healthcare in East Africa – and exposes the forces determined to stop them
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“Girls in my university would drink disinfectant and other concoctions if they had an unplanned pregnancy,” says Quin, a young graduate in Nakuru, Kenya. “They use pens, or go see quack doctors. You would hear of foetuses being dumped in bins”.
Quin volunteers at RHCO, a sexual health project agitating for greater access to reproductive healthcare in a country where unsafe abortions are estimated to kill 2,500 women and girls each year.
The project operates from a small and sparse office at the end of a dusty track, where goats, roosters and motorbikes congregate and street sellers offer water and phone credit to passers-by.
Now, with the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, Quin and women’s reproductive rights activists all across Kenya know the forces resisting them – many linked to the same global organisations that campaigned for the Supreme Court decision – are about to get a whole lot stronger.
“It worries us,” says Quin. “The US is a superpower. The decisions it makes on the issue of protecting a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion can greatly affect our state of reproductive health in Kenya”.
100 miles from RHCO’s rural office, and Mwikali Kivuvani, Executive Director of the Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance in Nairobi, is categoric about the threat the Roe decision poses. “With Roe overturned in the US, it will take everything we’ve got to legalise safe abortion in this country. Those who are anti-abortionists here will argue, if the US overturned the abortion ruling, why would we be allowing it”.
Her colleague in the movement and founder of the grassroots feminist Zamara Foundation, Esther Kimani, agrees. “We’re really, really scared”.
Abortion has been a constitutional right in Kenya since 2010, in cases of emergency and when the mother’s life is in danger. But it remains governed by the penal code, and a lack of a legal framework for when a woman’s situation is considered an emergency makes it challenging for healthcare workers to know when they can intervene.
That ambiguity is exploited by the anti-abortion organisations encountered by Quin – those who spread the message that “blood thirsty abortionists” want to “sneak in the murder of our children”; that terminations are against African values; and reproductive care is harmful to women’s health.
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On the Attack
Leading the charge against reproductive rights in Kenya is CitizenGO – a radical anti-abortion organisation based in Spain and supported by prominent US allies. Having petitioned against Roe v Wade, it celebrated the Supreme Court decision as a ‘victory’.
CitizenGO’s strategy of launching petitions and social media campaigns designed to attack reproductive rights and those who champion access to abortion was honed in the West, where it campaigned against plans to promote reproductive rights in the European Parliament, petitioned against LGBTIQ “indoctrination” in Disney movies, and supported Spain’s far-right Vox Party in its campaign against sex education.
Since 2017 it has been expanding its operations into the Global South, hiring its regional representative Ann Kioko – who was recently arrested after causing a disturbance in a bank. It sees Kenya as a key battleground.
Its notorious ‘gender ideology’ bus travelled to Nairobi in 2018, and earlier this year it was revealed it had paid local social media influencers in Kenya to target progressive causes. It now has the country’s August elections in its sights, launching a petition urging voters to support political candidates who would promise to “protect the life of unborn children”.
“CitizenGO doesn’t really have a market in the west anymore,” says Imran Ahmed, from the Washington D.C based Centre for Countering Digital Hate. “It’s having to take its model to places where they’re not so used to having their email inboxes flooded, where they haven’t got their defences yet”.
A month after Roe, and the anti-abortion movement scored another victory when Kenya’s Ministry of Health launched its Reproductive Health Policy 2022-2032. Pro-choice activists criticised the policy for obscuring the issue of unsafe abortion. In contrast, Kioko tweeted how she was “happy to see this day” and called it a “prolife win”. She took part in the public consultation for the policy.
Reproductive health campaigners are clear: since CitizenGo became active in Kenya the debate around women’s reproductive rights has become increasingly febrile. “Ever since we had CitizenGO really having roots in Kenya, the debate around abortion has become really bad,” says Kimani. “It has been adamant in perpetuating misinformation and that has made having a constructive debate around unsafe abortion much harder”.
“The way it is being portrayed is that we are pushing Africa to adopt white people’s practices but this is not necessarily the case,” obstetrician and Vice President of the Kenya Medical Association, Dr Amos Otara, told Byline Times. “Traditional abortifacients were used by our great, great grandparents before colonialism”.
But CitizenGO is a Western entity in itself. It has ties via the shadowy Agenda Europe network to Poland’s Ordo Iuris group, which lobbied the Polish Government ahead of the passing of draconian abortion laws in 2021, and to Spain’s far-right Vox party. Through the same network is has links with Alliance Defending Freedom, the US ‘religious freedom” organisation which has campaigned against abortion rights in the US and around the world. On the most basic level, it allows Western individuals to sign petitions focusing on East African legislation.
“The export of CitizenGO’s agenda and tactics to the Global South should raise major red flags not just for civil society, but for governments who have long sought to cast off colonial influences,” says Gillian Kane, Senior Technical Lead for Policy and Advocacy for global reproductive rights organisation IPAS.
One of its closest allies is the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ activist Brian Brown – the US President of the World Congress of Families which took place in Nairobi in 2018. Brown allegedly provided seed funding to CitizenGO, while his Act Right organisation – which offers support to conservative causes with petitions and email campaigns – gave advice “every couple of months or so” from a “senior expert” in fundraising and technology who is “paid by Brian Brown”, according to reports in openDemocracy.
Both Brown and CitizenGO’s founder Ignacio Arsuaga sit on each other’s boards, and are directors of the Political Network for Values. The increasingly influential group of global anti-abortion actors lists Kenyan MP Christiantus Wamalwa as an advisor, and its board also includes Sharon Slater from Family Watch International. Slater supported those pushing for Uganda’s ‘kill the gays’ bill and claims LGBTIQ people are “more likely to engage in paedophilia”.
Arsuaga, Brown and Slater are joined by Benjamin Bull, formerly of Alliance Defending Freedom and listed in 2014 as a member of the Council for National Policy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the CNP “mixes large numbers of ostensibly mainstream conservatives with far-right and extremist ideologues, mostly from the far fringes of the religious right”.
New Hopes, New Fears
Pro-choice activists in Kenya are now putting their energy into backing the East Africa Community’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill (EAC SRH) – a regional piece of legislation sponsored by South Sudanese member of the East Africa Legislative Assembly (EALA) Ayason Mukulia Kennedy. The bill seeks to eliminate unsafe abortion, to widen access to contraceptives and expand access to emergency abortion services for women in countries across East Africa – as well as to improve sex education in the region.
Despite claims made by the anti-abortion movement, the Bill does not legislate for abortion on demand, and instead calls for all EAC member states to allow terminations in cases when the mother’s health is at risk.
While the Bill offers hope to the pro-choice movement, it has given the anti-abortion opposition a fresh chance to go on the attack, with CitizenGO launching petitions to prevent its passing and to recall Kennedy from the EALA. On Twitter, Kioko called him a “traitor”. Over on Facebook, CitizenGO spread disinformation that the EALA was a “den of child sexualisation” and it was a bill for “blood thirsty abortionists”.
It started the year as it meant to go on: sending an email to potential donors on 1 January declaring its intentions for “destroying all attempts to erode African culture and defeat the abortion bill at the East Africa Legislative Assembly”.
“CitizenGO directly attacked me,” Kennedy told Byline Times. “They try to portray me as an abortionist. It definitely has an emotional impact. They post pictures of me with a red cross over my face. They tried to have me recalled from my position which was quite terrible”.
Kioko took part in the public consultation on the bill in July, claiming it would “sneak in the murder of our children”. But frustration with the Spanish organisation’s attempts to influence the hearings was also on display. One audience member demanded to know why a Western organisation was taking part in a debate about reproductive rights in East Africa, saying “there is nothing African about CitizenGO”.
Pro-choice activists know that with Roe overruled, CitizenGO and the increasingly active and international anti-abortion movement in Kenya will be emboldened. But they are prepared for the fight. It’s one that Betram Odhiambo of the African Youth Action Network, understands better than most that they can’t afford to lose.
Based in a residential block in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, the organisation offers advice on reproductive healthcare. According to Odhiambo, “the mental health impact of having an unplanned pregnancy is huge. We know of girls who have taken their own lives”.
One in four women in Kenya having an unsafe abortion suffer complications such as high fever, sepsis, shock and organ failure. This has allowed Kioko to share tweets sharing misinformation that abortion is harmful to women’s health. But the danger comes from denying women access to healthcare, leading to the illicit abortions such as those described by Quin. In Britain, where abortion is legally accessible, the NHS states that “abortions are generally very safe and most women will not experience any problems”.
It’s the risk to health from unsafe abortions and unintended pregnancy that Kennedy wants to prevent by eliminating the practice through his bill.
“The failure of the bill will be a slap on the face of the millions of girls who drop out of school due to early pregnancy and lack of access to contraceptives,” says Kennedy. “My bill is to protect and facilitate the sexual and reproductive health rights of all persons. It may save millions of lives across the region”.
CitizenGO did not respond to our request for comment.