Kibera, the largest slum in Africa
Kibera, the largest slum in Africa

Prioritising sexual and reproductive health in Kenya

Sexual and reproductive health and rights should be at the centre of empowering women and girls in Kenya says Katarzyna Rybarczyk  

Sexual and reproductive health represents a basic human right in many areas of the world. However, people, especially women and girls, are denied it. Individuals, irrespective of their gender should also be able to decide when they want to have children, should have access to family planning information and be able to receive good quality sexual and reproductive healthcare.   

Kenya is an example of a country where limited sexual and reproductive rights have led to high rates of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, girls being ashamed of menstruation, and women frequently becoming victims of practices such as female genital mutilation or forced and child marriage. 

I work as Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service and I recently spent a month volunteering in Africa’s largest urban slum, Kibera, where I shadowed the United Cultural Empowerment & Social Community Organization (UCESCO), a Nairobi-based charity working with underprivileged communities to empower women and girls living in slums. 

My experience has shown me that girls are extremely motivated and willing to work hard to escape poverty. However, due to environmental constraints, they cannot realise their potential. Women living in the Kibera slum face gender inequality. Many of the slum’s residents view them as inferior to men and believe they should stay at home and take care of children instead of taking part in female empowerment programmes or getting employed. 

Magnitude of the problem in Kenya.

In Kenya, many women cannot freely decide on matters regarding pregnancies. They lack sexual and reproductive health knowledge. The Constitution of Kenya states that: ‘Abortion is not permitted unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other law.’

As a result, women who unintentionally get pregnant turn to unlawful abortions, often performed in unsanitary conditions by untrained individuals. Consequently, maternal mortality in Kenya is very high with around 6,000 deaths each year, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) reported. Almost twenty per cent of these deaths are caused by complications after having an unsafe abortion.  

Moreover, one-fifth of women in Kenya do not know if abortions are legal and who to turn to, should they need one. They are not aware of the risks of unsafe abortions and do not know where to seek help if any complications occur. 

Furthermore, in Kenya, around four million women and girls have been subject to female genital mutilation (FGM), UNICEF reported. In theory, the ritual was outlawed in Kenya in 2011. In practice, female genital mutilation is still prevalent in rural areas, especially in the North-Eastern region of the country. 

Standing up for their rights.

One of UCESCO’s main missions is to build a world where all women are safe, strong, and valued. To do this, the organisation teaches teenage girls and women about their sexual and reproductive rights and runs programmes equipping them with knowledge and skills that will allow them to find employment and reduce their dependence on men. 

UCESCO’s approach is not to merely counsel women and girls about sexually transmitted infections and risks of unsafe abortions. The organisation uses talking about reproductive and sexual health to help women and girls become more aware of their rights and make them realise that they are capable of achieving great things in life. 

Thanks to the help of organisations operating in Nairobi’s slums and rural areas around the city, the rates of teenage pregnancies can be reduced and customs such as FGM can be eradicated. Most importantly, Kenya is moving closer towards gender equality and women and girls no longer agree to be discriminated against by men. 

Women in Kibera are now establishing groups to support each other, talk about issues such as managing periods, contraception, and women empowerment. They collectively demand fair treatment and equal rights. Encouraged and supported by charities, women have been playing a crucial part to transform the slum.

Challenges to promote sexual and reproductive health in Kenya.

Every time I look back at my time in Kibera I think about how incredible and strong women and girls there are. Despite living in an environment where they have to fight to be heard every day, they want to realise their rights, think differently about themselves, relationships, and gender roles. 

I am also reminded about the extreme poverty these women are living in and even though they want to be a power for positive social change, opportunities and tools to achieve that are limited. These women and girls do not have access to quality education, sexual health services and have no one to turn to for guidance and medical treatment as there are very few sexual and reproductive healthcare centres operating in impoverished areas of Kenya. 

Sexual and reproductive rights and services should be prioritised in international agendas, yet it seems like the key donors championing sexual and reproductive health in developing countries have been stepping back in recent months. In April, the UK announced that it was going to cut family planning aid to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) by 85 per cent

‘When funding stops, women and girls, especially the poor, suffer’, said Dr Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, in response to the UK’s decision. 

Without the UK’s contribution, nations across the world, in Africa in particular, are not able to prevent millions of maternal and child deaths, unintended pregnancies, and unsafe abortions. 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are essential to empower women and girls, to make sure that they have access to health services, and to advance gender equality not only in Kenya but also in other low and middle-income countries. 

Protecting and promoting girls’ reproductive health and rights increases female participation in all aspects and gives them the chance to live free from discrimination and gender-based violence. Without sufficient funds, this cannot be achieved.

Feature Photo by Katarzyna Rybarczyk  

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Prioritising sexual and reproductive health in Kenya

by Katarzyna Rybarczyk Reading time: 4 min