Lack of access to safe and legal abortion is a major violation of women’s rights. Yet, in every part of the world women are still being denied their right to control their bodies and choose whether to have children. That’s why organizations around the world have made September 28 a global day of action for access to safe and legal abortion.
Last month, various women’s rights organizations, sexual and reproductive health and rights activists, and human rights defenders joined together to call for an end to abortion stigma. This stigma, coupled with restrictive abortion policies, is threatening women’s lives. This is the case in Kenya, where at least 2,600 women die from unsafe abortion every year—substantially higher than the African average.
Health and social justice organizations in Kenya kicked off September 28 with coordinated actions to ensure that abortion was discussed on mainstream media and in community dialogues. Activists in the cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu held “freeze-mobs,” where they gathered together to stand completely still for 10 minutes to represent the silence that surrounds abortion and breeds stigma. In Nairobi, activists pitched tents in the Central Business District to hand out information about family planning services and sexual and reproductive health information. Other activities included drama festivals involving schoolchildren and community forums to engage the public to have a discussion about abortion stigma.
Kenya’s September 28 campaign took up the slogan, “Stand Up, Speak Out,” and activists hope this is only the beginning of sustained action to end abortion stigma. The broad alliance of organizations driving the Kenya campaign included the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights Alliance Kenya, composed of Dandelion Kenya, Young Women Leadership Institute, Fortress of Hope, Coast Women in Development, Youth Intercommunity Network, and others.
The groundswell of support for the September 28 campaign in Kenya is due in part to the slow pace of the Kenya government in tackling unsafe abortion. In 2010, recognizing that unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality, Kenya enacted a new constitution that expanded women’s right to access safe abortion. After initially releasing a set of policies, standards, and guidelines for the provision of safe abortion, the Ministry of Health rescinded these guidelines. Research shows that service providers and health systems in Kenya are fueling abortion stigma and perpetuating negative beliefs and attitudes towards women and girls who seek abortion services. The Ministry of Health should issue new standards and guidelines to ensure that women are able to receive the safe, nonjudgmental reproductive health care to which they are legally entitled.
Of course, abortion stigma is not limited to Kenya. Other African countries that took part in the September 28 campaign include Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa. Calls for action across the continent ranged from community forums, marches, and media interviews. Social media was also used to drive discussions on Twitter: African activists all over the world posted pictures and signs with speaking out against abortion stigma.
This year’s September 28 campaign provided a platform to engage governments, the public, and fellow human rights defenders to support women’s right to choose, because choice should not be criminalized and women’s rights have been denied for far too long. Choice is not a privilege: it is a human right.