The band Sauti Sol made international headlines last week when U.S. President Barack Obama joined them on stage and showed off his dance moves at a state dinner hosted by our President, Uhuru Kenyatta. But the popular boy band is used to being in the news, having caused a stir in local media recently with their song “Nerea.” In the song, a man begs his girlfriend not to terminate her pregnancy, but to keep “his child” and to give the child to him to take care of. The woman is warned not to abort and told that God always provides for children. The lyrics make an emotional appeal by naming famous people the child could grow up to be: Barack Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Miriam Makeba.
While not as well known in the West, Sauti Sol has a large fan base in Kenya, and throughout Africa. This song has been played on our airwaves every day and I can’t overstate its impact. Many of us fear it may be causing women and girls to shy away from demanding their right to an abortion. The song stigmatizes abortion, and could make it more likely that if women and girls decide to terminate their pregnancies, they will go to clandestine places rather than to qualified health professionals.
Unsafe abortion is already a significant problem in Kenya. While the government liberalized the abortion law a few years ago, it is still only legal in emergencies or when the health or life of the woman is in danger. Yet, there are nearly 465,000 induced abortions in Kenya each year, and virtually all of these are unsafe procedures. This leads to a high number of maternal deaths. And with Kenya’s high rate of teenage pregnancy, this means that young women and girls are disproportionately affected by unsafe abortion.
“Nerea” has put the abortion debate front and center, triggering extreme and ridiculous responses. The most terrifying example of this is a letter written by the head of the Students Organization of Nairobi University to President Kenyatta, seeking permission to burn down a Nairobi clinic performing abortions. He even asked for petrol to facilitate this! Imagine if he and others decided to target all clinics providing abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services? What would women do then? This would push abortion even more underground and put women’s and girls’ lives at even more risk.
No doubt abortion is an emotional issue in Kenya as in other parts of the world. The discussion around it is usually linked to culture and religion, and the stigma is strong. But Kenyans continue to bury their heads in the sand by not accepting that women and girls die every day due to unsafe abortion. We have to stop and recognize that their lives matter. This song represents a Kenya we do not want: where leaders and other public figures are quick to judge women’s sexual and reproductive health choices.
Compelling women to undergo unsafe procedures rather than safe ones violates their right to life, their right to health, and their right to dignity. We as a society do need to have a conversation around abortion, but with a sober mind and with arguments that are based in fact. I and other advocates will continue to have this dialogue and work to see that the rights of women and girls are protected and respected. But we cannot achieve this alone. We all are responsible in making sure that women and girls have control over their own bodies and lives, and that they have the ability to make choices about their futures.
Image: Joshua Wanyama/flickr