Kenya’s high court to decide on safe abortion as teenager dies

The case of a 15-year-old girl who was raped and died from a botched abortion could legalise the procedure in the country.

Law books

Kenya’s high court is to decide if the government is responsible for the death of a teenager from a botched backstreet abortion, campaigners said on Thursday, in a case which could see safer abortions for thousands of women in the east African nation.

The girl – known by her initials JMM to protect her identity – was raped in 2014 at the age of 15. On discovering she was pregnant, she had a backstreet abortion that left her with injuries which eventually led to her death last month.

JMM’s mother, together with the Federation of Women Lawyers, filed a petition in 2015 claiming authorities failed to provide her daughter with proper post-abortion care, and called on the government to implement measures for access to safe abortions.

After a three-day hearing, which saw testimonies from ministry of health officials, Christian groups and women’s rights organisations, the case has been adjourned until September 18 with a verdict expected by the end of the year.

“My daughter’s horrific suffering and tragic death was entirely preventable. I watched her go through more pain than you can imagine, she did not have to die like this,” JMM’s mother said in a statement.

“If our country had any respect for her life and her rights, she would be here today. But how many more girls and women are going to suffer before something is done? Before they receive justice? Kenya has to make abortion safe and accessible.”

Kenya’s 2010 constitution broadened access to abortion, permitting it in cases when a woman’s life is at risk and in cases of an emergency.

But campaigners say authorities – influenced by powerful Christian organisations – have instead made it harder for women to get safer access to abortions.

Since 2010, the ministry of health has withdrawn essential guidelines on conducting safe abortions and banned health workers from training on abortion.

The guidelines, amongst other things, provided clarity on who could perform abortions, safe-guarding against illegal practitioners. The ban on training has meant fewer health professionals available to perform the procedure or after care.

Evelyne Opondo, Africa director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the petitioners in the court case, said JMM’s post-abortion care was a direct consequence of Kenya’s crackdown on safe abortion services.

Following her abortion, JMM developed an infection and was transferred between four hospitals as staff did not know how to treat her. She suffered kidney failure and was bedridden for months before her death on June 10.

“While JMM was entitled to quality post abortion care irrespective of whether it was within the law or otherwise, she did not receive it from the point of first contact with the health system,” said Opondo.

“Instead there were several delays and missed opportunities to mitigate the adverse effect of the unsafe abortion on her health and life.”

The petitioners are seeking compensation from the government for JMM’s family, as well as the reinstatement of the abortion guidelines and the scrapping of the ban on training.


Nita Bhalla
Nita Bhalla

This article was written by Nita Bhalla (edited by Claire Cozens) who covers disasters and conflicts, development, womens rights, climate change and governance for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She is a former Reuters political and general news correspondent and has worked in India, east and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region. Nita started her career in 1999 with the BBC in Ethiopia.

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