Praying that things go away, seems to be a Kenyan, or indeed, African way of dealing with matters that we wish not to confront because they are incomprehensible, sinful or God’s will. Mental health is one such example. This myth has been dispelled by Hauwa Ojeifo, the founder of ‘She Writes Woman’, a mental health helpline in Nigeria.
Hauwa offers people who suffer mental health breakdowns an opportunity to talk their problems out and seek psychological help. I must acknowledge the phrase, “Praying things away”, as hers. We are also experiencing our own challenges of “praying things away” when dealing with incessant traffic accidents, corruption, election violence and now, abortion and teenage pregnancies.
Abortion and the use of contraception have been controversial in religious spheres, not just in Kenya, but also in many other countries. Given the risks that many women and girls are facing in Kenya at the hands of quack doctors and sexually abusive individuals, it might be time to have an honest discussion around these divisive issues in order to save lives and reduce teenage pregnancies.
Blaming the explosion of abortion and teenage pregnancies on moral decay and then doing nothing to correct it is akin to burying our heads in the sand and hoping for miracles. Teenage pregnancies are clearly not of miracle conception and the solution lies with society.
Objections to the use of condoms at the onset of the HIV the epidemic shows how unifocal reasoning can lead to devastation. A few years ago, many religious groups were against the use of condoms to fight HIV despite its rapid spread. As a result, HIV ended up taking a huge toll on many African countries, in particular.
The Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, has borne the brunt of unplanned pregnancies due to the church’s objection to contraception. Free contraception was recently introduced to reverse the rise in population and tackle poverty.
Not legalising abortion leaves women at the mercy of unqualified doctors and nurses, who operate unsafe and unsanitary backstreet clinics. These clinics are hardly ever licensed, which makes it difficult to get justice for women when a major clinical negligence or even death occurs. Women should have the autonomy to decide on their health.
Use of contraception and procuring abortion is part of that autonomy. It is women who bear the biggest burden of unplanned pregnancies, anyway. Not supporting them will also cause serious challenges as witnessed in the number of street children and poverty due to large unplanned families. Contraception and sterilisation can help women who suffer from physical and mental health impairment and who otherwise would be at a higher risk of being sexually abused. Allowing powerful minority groups to object to abortion and use of contraception for cultural or religious reasons is biased.
The women who cannot afford abortion in the unlicensed clinics end up in a cycle of poverty as a result of unplanned pregnancies. Street girls and women would face even further risk of exploitation if contraception and abortion are not legally offered to them.
These issues cannot be determined at political rallies or press conferences. They are complex and need complex solutions. We require serious and honest discussions to protect women and girls. The calls for castration show that we only assume teenage pregnancies are as a result of predatory men alone. How many school boys understand the risk of being involved in sex, for instance? Education on sexual matters would be uncomfortable for many families, but leaving teenagers to wade through the murky world of sex alone would not be wise either.
The time to consider sex education is now to help sensitise teenagers on the issue to protect themselves. With that, considerations must also be made as to whether it would be feasible to allow use of contraception to protect girls who might end up in a sexual relationship early.
Praying things will go away may not always work in this day and age where youngsters are influenced by cultures outside the conservative norms. We cannot underestimate the impact of the internet on youth. We can choose to be pragmatic and honest in tackling unplanned and teenage pregnancies or face the consequences of premature deaths of women.
If we object to abortion and use of contraception by teenagers, then we must bolster child protection laws and set up enough children’s homes to protect them from harm and hardship. It is time to get the blinkers off and see abortion and teenage pregnancies as serious problems and seek the best way to manage them.
Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected]