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“It’s real, it’s happening, and it’s everywhere.” How Marie Stopes Kenya sparked a national conversation on unsafe abortion

Thursday 27 September 2018 Will Harris Safe abortion and post abortion care, Policy and advocacy Kenya

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When ordinary women and men across Kenya sit down at their breakfast tables each morning, unsafe abortion is not usually the first topic of conversation you would expect to hear.

Yet for the last month that’s exactly what has been happening, as Marie Stopes Kenya has been working with the nation’s leading radio breakfast programmes to spark discussion about an epidemic that every day kills seven Kenyan women and girls and hospitalises 320 more, despite the availability of safe and legal options.

“For too long, abortion has been viewed as something that Kenyans just don’t talk about, even in big cities like Nairobi,” says Dana Tilson, Country Director for Marie Stopes Kenya. “The problem with this is that women facing an unplanned pregnancy don’t know where to turn for support. This lack of knowledge then drives them to the backstreets and ultimately to risk their lives.”

According to the Kenyan Constitution, abortion is permitted in certain circumstances, including to protect the health or life of a woman. Despite the existence of safe and legal options, the ongoing stigma around the issue means that many women facing an unplanned pregnancy feel unable to talk openly, even to their closest friends and family.

A recent report by the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the African Population and Health Research Centre revealed that, in one year alone, Kenya spent Sh533 million ($5.2 million) treating complications from unsafe abortion in its public health facilities. Today, it is estimated that seven Kenyan women die every day after using backstreet abortionists, known locally as ‘quacks’.

In a bid to address the problem, Marie Stopes Kenya launched a new campaign, We Have Your Back, encouraging Kenyan journalists and broadcasters to start a national conversation about abortion and ensure women know that safe options are available.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Women have contacted radio stations to share harrowing experiences of unsafe abortion, while doctors and politicians who had previously been silent have begun to publicly discuss the need for further liberalisation of the law. Marie Stopes Kenya’s contact centre – the country’s leading source of confidential advice on sexual and reproductive health – has seen requests from women for support skyrocket, from around 140 calls daily to more than 1,000 calls in a single day.

“Abortion is not an uncontroversial issue, but there is a real sense within Kenya that this is a conversation that’s time has come,” says Dana. “Whoever you speak to, from your co-workers to the matatu driver, everyone knows someone who has suffered because of unsafe abortion, or even died from it. Whatever their personal beliefs, no one wants to see women risking their lives.”

Engagement with the campaign has been so great that, when the Kenya Film Classification Board threatened to ban a Marie Stopes Kenya radio advert for “targeting teenage girls”, there was public outcry.

“A reluctance to talk about these issues is really at the heart of this problem,” says Dana. “Most Kenyans understand that and want change. Women at risk of unsafe abortion need support and advice, not censorship. This conversation has been censored for long enough.”

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