Civil society groups want reproductive health policy delayed again

Civil society groups claim th policy limits the right of single people to access assisted reproductive health technology services

Photo credit: Courtesy

Some civil society groups championing reproductive health rights have again protested against the launch of the Reproductive Health Policy (2022-2030) by the Health ministry.

They say the policy rides on a moralistic outlook, and is out of touch with the realities of marginalised groups. Health officials were to launch the policy today.

The policy, which was supposed to be launched on March 24, was halted after women and human rights defenders took to the streets, lamenting that they had not been consulted and that it did not speak to the needs of the most vulnerable Kenyans.

Discussions were then held between officials and the groups, which were to offer suggestions to be included in the draft. During a workshop, the ministry promised that the draft would be shared for validation before being formally launched. 

Health ministry officials had been engaging civil society groups but only ‘shallowly’, Lisa Owino, programme officer at the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids, told the Nation yesterday.

She lamented that the division of maternal and reproductive health in the ministry, which plans to launch the policy today, had not provided the updated draft policy online for validation.

“We currently do not have access to a draft, so we don’t know what we are validating. This goes against the commitments they made during the deliberations workshop,” she said.

“It is like they are rubber-stamping that we had a deliberations meeting and a validation, backed up by the attendance list, but the chance to meaningfully engage with the content isn’t there.”

The bone of contention about the policy, she said, is that the process was not inclusive and that public participation was superficial. She added that people were not given enough time to scrutinise the contents of the policy and provide their feedback.

“The policy itself hinges on the idea of reproductive health as something that accrues to a couple or a family unit, yet in the Constitution, it is a right to an individual,” Ms Owino explained.

She said the policy limits the right of single people to access assisted reproductive health technology services and demands that they be vetted but couples are exempted from the same demands. The policy also excludes the rights of adolescents and young people, she said, pegging them to parental consent before they access services such as contraceptives.

“The policy is big on adult and parental consent while that does not reflect the reality on the ground … When you think of delaying the sexual debut age, you are not actually speaking to the root cause of teenage pregnancy as we know it in Kenya …. yet, the core of the right to health is to leave no one behind,” she said.

“There was a lot of discussion about adolescents and access to contraceptives and the feeling is that adolescents shouldn’t access contraceptives.

“It seems like there is a push from the ministry to desexualise children, yet there are many orphans and vulnerable adolescents who are exposed to sexual abuse and need access such a service.”

By seeking to over-regulate abortion and how it is accessed, she said, healthcare professionals are likely to withhold services due to harassment, intimidation and legal consequences.

It is misleading for the Health ministry to purport to have listened to and included the views of all stakeholders, argued Jedidah Maina, executive director of Trust and Indigenous Culture and Heath.

“As human rights defenders and representatives of civil society we are formally disengaging and withdrawing from this process. Our organisations reject inclusion in the list of participants and demand that we are no longer associated with a problematic, oppressive document,” she said.

She added that the groups plan to take legal action against the division of maternal and reproductive health to ensure that the policy is “given the contempt it deserves”.

She warned that the policy does not address teen pregnancies, as it seeks to deny adolescents access to reproductive health in the guise of letting them be children. By refusing to make provisions for safe abortions, deaths from unsafe procedures will continue, as women will choose sneak-in crisis pregnancy centres as a solution to unwanted pregnancies.

“It is our right as Kenyans to participate in all decisions affecting our lives, including policy-making on reproductive health,” Ms Maina said.

“We call upon the Ministry of Health to halt the adoption and implementation of reproductive health documents until the public has had an adequate opportunity to review and validate these documents.”

She urged the acting director-general for Health, Dr Patrick Amoth clarify how the ministry will “ensure meaningful public participation in policy-making moving forward”.

“We call upon the Commission on Administrative Justice to investigate the Ministry’s refusal to have open and transparent policy-making processes on sexual and reproductive health,” she added.