Following the questionable reelection of President Mwai Kibaki in 2007-2008, clashes between the Kikuyu and Luo peoples ensued across Kenya. Unprecedented violence threatened the well-being of thousands; homes were demolished, civilians were murdered, and women and girls faced widespread sexual violence. From the tea fields in rural regions to the informal settlements in the nation’s capital, rape was used as a weapon of war.
This mass rape left hundreds of women physically and mentally traumatized with little hope for justice. Many communities rejected survivors of sexual violence and refused to help find medical assistance or support. Not only were young survivors expelled by their husbands and families, but were barred from schools and prevented from completing their education.
When rape resulted in pregnancy, many women and girls were left with few choices and forced to carry their pregnancy to term. Those children born from rape were met with violence, marginalization and rejection.
These factors have made the cycle of abuse and health issues a reality for many Kenyan women, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Access to safe abortion could have provided an opportunity to start over and begin to cope with the traumatic experiences endured by survivors of sexual violence. Consuming the easy-to-use and effective abortion pills early on would have avoided surgical complications and allowed women to induce safe abortions in the privacy of their own homes. Access to a safe surgical abortion later in the term would have prevented countless women from performing dangerous self-abortions, or from seeking aid from a quack. The consequences of unsafe abortion – self-induced or performed by a “professional” – are numerous. Sepsis, tearing of the uterus, unbearable abdominal pain, permanent incontinence and death are not uncommon. One young woman’s only option was to turn to an unknown chemical reactive as an abortion method. Doctor’s later described the result as most closely related to a “bomb”; her sexual health will never return to normal.
Safe medical or surgical abortion is inaccessible to so many women partly because of the oppressive Helms amendment, a US policy appended to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 in 1973. This law has been misinterpreted to prevent US funding for abortion services, including the purchase of equipment, materials, and the provision of post-abortion care abroad.
Kenya has been particularly impacted by the Helms amendment. Civil society and non-governmental organizations funded by USAID have had to exclude even the discussion of abortion in their work on gender-based violence and women’s reproductive health despite the wave of sexual violence brought by conflict. In one instance, to maintain USAID funding, policy standards and guidelines prepared by the Kenyan Ministry of Health regarding family planning were changed overnight to remove training curricula for safe abortions. Lack of access to safe abortion care and information endangers women’s lives, and cannot be solely blamed on the Kenyan Ministry of Health or other agencies around the world while they are restricted by the Helms amendment.
A permanent repeal of the Helms Amendment would open doors for USAID to allow local clinics in Kenya, and throughout the developing world, to not only provide abortion care, but to assist women who have undergone unsafe abortions or who have questions about abortion services. But even clarifying the law to allow for abortion care in instances of rape, incest, or for the life of the mother would save lives around the world.
Reinterpreting Helms should be the obvious first response to the post-election violence in Kenya, the growing Zika virus pandemic in Latin America, as a means to aid Yazidi women suffering at the hands of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or as a way of offering medical assistance to the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Rather than force women to bear the children of their rapists, risk life-threatening injury, or face the dangers of childbirth, one simple signature from the future President of the United States could offer a blanket of hope to women seeking safe and legal abortion everywhere.