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Kenyan activist's death in botched abortion spotlights 'killer' backstreet clinics

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Reuters
Friday, 15 February 2019 17:33 GMT

Unsafe abortions account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a Kenyan activist due a botched abortion spotlights how thousands of pregnant women and girls are being driven by social stigma and restrictive policies to lose their lives in backstreet clinics, human rights campaigners said on Friday.

Caroline Mwatha disappeared on Feb. 6 in Dandora, a poor neighbourhood in Kenya's capital Nairobi, where she lived and campaigned against the abusive treatment of people in police custody, raising alarm among rights groups.

Her body was discovered in a city morgue six days later. Preliminary results of the postmortem conducted on Thursday found she died of excessive bleeding and a ruptured uterus arising from a crude abortion attempt.

Police have arrested six people, including the owner of the clinic where the abortion was carried out, her son, a doctor involved in the procedure, and a taxi driver.

"Caroline did not have to die. Her death was preventable. She is just one of so many women who are killed needlessly due to unsafe abortion in clinics run by 'quacks'," said Evelyne Opondo, Africa director of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"This is a moment for the country to reflect. Our constitution provides limited access to abortion, but we are not responding to the realities for many women and neither is our law. It's a conversation that we need to start in Kenya."

Abortions are only permitted in the East African nation if a woman's life or health is in danger and emergency treatment is required.

Campaigners say the policy - along with conservative pro-life attitudes which stigmatise abortion in the largely Christian country - has driven thousands of women and girls to unregulated clinics run by untrained medical practitioners.

Almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 - the most recent data available - with one in four women and girls suffering complications such as high fever, sepsis, shock and organ failure, according to health ministry data.

Unsafe abortions account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, much higher than the global average of 13 percent. About 266 women die per 100,000 unsafe abortions in Kenya - higher than rates in other East African nations, it added.

Most victims are women and girls from poor urban and rural settlements who cannot afford private healthcare, and face stigma and discrimination seeking treatment in public hospitals.

Police said Mwatha died during an attempted termination of her five-month-old pregnancy at a local clinic, and her body was transferred to the city mortuary under a false name.

Campaigners say Kenyan authorities have failed to crack down on backstreet clinics and - influenced by powerful Christian organisations - have in recent years made it harder for women and girls to get safer access to abortions.

The health ministry has withdrawn essential guidelines on conducting safe abortions and banned health workers from training to perform them.

Authorities have also sought to crack down on the international charity Marie Stopes, which is one of Kenya's biggest private providers of legal, affordable post-abortive care, and abortions when the life of the woman is at risk.

Last year, the government attempted to ban their public awareness campaigns and prevent the charity from providing abortion services as stipulated under the constitution.

"Kenya is a religious country which is conservative and very patriarchal. Women's sexuality is controlled and they are not permitted to make decisions on sex and having children," said Agnes Odhiambo, a women's rights researcher from Human Rights Watch.

"The government should find ways to remove the stigma around abortion and provide better and safe access to abortion services so that no more women and girls have to die." (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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