Abortion, LGBTI rights stir emotions on eve of Nairobi summit

Kenyans from different religious groups in a demonstration organized by civic group Citizen Go to oppose ICPD25. Screencap from video footage by Daniel Irungu / EFE / EPA

NAIROBI — In the lead up to a major global United Nations conference on reproductive and sexual health in Kenya, topics such as abortion, LGBTI rights, and contraceptives for adolescents have stirred controversy among faith communities and conservative advocacy groups. These reactions to the summit illustrate some of the challenges that health professionals face in expanding access to services for women and girls globally.

The Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, which started Tuesday, is being held 25 years after the first International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. At that Cairo summit, a landmark document was agreed upon that is credited with creating a women and girl-centered approach to family planning, focused on human rights and choice. The U.N. hasn’t convened a conference of this magnitude on sexual and reproductive health since the 1994 summit. Over 6,000 people from 165 countries are expected to attend this week.

“This is a global summit, it’s not a Kenyan summit, everything is on the table and these are issues that need to be discussed.”

— Arthur Erken, director of communications and strategic partnerships, UNFPA

On Monday, anti-abortion protesters marched through downtown Nairobi, carrying signs such as “Abortion Kills Our Children,” branded by Citizen Go, a Spain-based conservative advocacy group. The protesters chanted “No to ICPD,” “Abortion hurts women,” and “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Citizen Go also released a petition calling for Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to reject the “pro-abortion and sexualization agenda” at the summit, saying it is “against the spirit of Kenyan law and culture.” The Kenya Christian Professionals Forum is also hosting opposition events throughout the week.

The Nairobi Summit is co-hosted by the United Nations Population Fund and the governments of Kenya and Denmark.

During a press conference Monday, Principal Secretary for Kenya’s Department of Planning Saitoti Torome told reporters that the government had assured faith leaders that abortion and LGBTI rights will not be discussed at the summit. He also claimed that women don’t die from unsafe abortions when they can’t access a legal abortion — an inaccurate statement. Each year, about 7 million women are admitted to hospitals in low- and middle-income countries from unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization. The risk of dying from an unsafe abortion is highest in Africa. 

Abortion is illegal in Kenya, except when a woman's life or health is in danger, and the country also criminalizes homosexuality — a law that was recently upheld by the nation’s high court.

Despite Torome’s statements, the summit’s agenda does include conversations on the inclusion of minority groups, including LGBTI communities, and access to safe abortions.

“This is a global summit, it’s not a Kenyan summit, everything is on the table and these are issues that need to be discussed,” said UNFPA Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships Arthur Erken during the same press conference.

Countries, organizations, and donors have made commitments surrounding the summit, focused in areas such as ending preventable maternal mortality, gender-based violence, and increasing access to contraceptive methods.

In a sign that the issue of abortion is not just a contentious one in Kenya, one of the U.S. government’s commitments, entitled “Empowering women and girls to thrive,” alludes to the Trump administration’s anti-abortion stance, referring the need to value “every human life — born and unborn.”

Like previous Republican administrations, the Trump administration has withheld funding from UNFPA, citing the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits foreign aid to an organization that is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization. The U.N. agency has denied participating in any work of this nature. The year before President Donald Trump came into office, in 2016, the U.S. contributed about $69 million to UNFPA.

“Even though the U.S. has canceled their funding for UNFPA, there have been responses from many other donor countries and actually UNFPA has increased their funding,” Denmark’s special envoy for ICPD25, Ambassador Ib Petersen, told Devex.

The summit’s organizers met with faith leaders in the lead-up to the summit to get their input on the summit’s areas of focus. A session will also be held on Wednesday focused on the role that religious actors play in advancing sexual and reproductive rights.

During a separate event on Monday, members of the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religion discussed the role the faith communities will play in the summit, releasing a statement that said that “provision of contraceptives to underage girls and boys is not a solution for teenage pregnancies, and certainly not for STIs, nor HIV/AIDS.” But the statement also called for an expansion of family planning services, an end to sexual and gender-based violence, and affordable health services.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.