Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kenyans Don't Need Rights, Especially if They Are Women

The Kenyan MPs reviewing the draft constitution have decided that women will not have equal rights to men in marriage. They don't at present, so no change there. And a big missed opportunity in the fight against domestic violence, family impoverishment and indeed, the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI), along with unplanned pregnancies, including those among women who are HIV positive.

These extremely well paid MPs have decided to exclude much in the constitution that relates to rights and the role of civil society. This includes religious groups (and the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights), so I'm sure the MPs will be persuaded to change their minds about the former! But Kenyans certainly, these MPs feel, don't need rights to water, housing or food (or social security, health, founding a family, safe environment, access to quality goods or efficient administrative action). It could be wondered what rights Kenyans are deemed to be entitled to by these (Kenyan) MPs.

One of the reasons that the use of condoms for reducing the spread of HIV, STIs and unplanned pregnancies has not been too successful is that women say they don't have the option to refuse to have unprotected sex with their husbands or partners. Effectively, they don't have the option to avoid becoming pregnant, even when they don't want more children or when they know they or their partners are HIV positive.

The Christian churches, the ones whose part in running the country may or may not be threatened by this constitutional review, of course, object to the use of contraception. The fact that it could prevent all sorts of social problems, such as the ones mentioned above, is irrelevant. Harm reduction will probably never cut any ice with Christian dogma. But it is unlikely that women's rights will fare any better in the ultimate male dominated institution.

However, on the insistence of the same Christian churches, the controversial paragraph that mentions the right to life without stating when life begins has been altered to stipulate that life begins at conception. Are all Kenyans Christians? Clearly not, but some vocal sectors of the civil society that these MPs seem to want to silence appear to have a lot more say in the new constitution than others.

Abortion is already illegal in Kenya. With very few exceptions, the hundreds of thousands of abortions that take place in Kenya every year are, therefore, unsafe. These unsafe abortions contribute to the maternal death rate of 30% and an estimated 2000 women die every year from unsafe abortions.

So the Christian churches are interested in the right to life of the unborn, but they don't seem to be so interested in the right of women to choose whether to become pregnant or even to choose who can make them pregnant or when. Women who know their partner or husband is HIV positive do not have the right to refuse to have sex or to insist on the use of a condom. Why are these Christian churches not as concerned about the rights of the very women who are expected to carry, give birth to and raise children where they do not choose to, perhaps because they or their partner is HIV positive?

A canon who was interviewed about this matter said that 'pregnancy is God's design' and that men and women are 'responsible to control themselves and engage in sex as a husband and wife', which, if you are a Christian, may well be true. But is the canon not aware that a lot of sexual activity doesn't take place between husbands and wives, that a lot of people have sex with people other than their husbands and wives, that some people don't get to choose when, where and with whom they have sex? The Christian churches, of all churches, should be aware of things like this.

If the Christian churches wish to oppose the use of contraception and a woman's right to choose, they need to pay some attention to the rights that women are currently being denied. Because it is in part the denial of these rights that is giving rise to huge numbers of unplanned pregnancies in the first place. If they sincerely want to reduce unplanned pregnancies, transmission of HIV and other STIs, sexual and gender based violence and other social problems, they would need to reconsider their position on contraception, for a start. If they are unable or unwilling to do that, these churches will find their relevance to the majority of Kenyans, especially poor Kenyans, diminishing as quickly as it has done in Western countries over the past few decades.


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