HomeInternationalDesperate Kenyan women risk last-resort abortions

Desperate Kenyan women risk last-resort abortions

By Jack Kimball

NAIROBI – Turn right near the tall acacia tree at the crossroads and a narrow dirt road leads you to Mama Alice’s tin-roofed health clinic.

Mama Alice, a stout woman in her 50s, says bad things happen in the backstreets

of Mukuru, a squalid shantytown that is home to about 40,000 on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Many women are dying after unsafe abortions by quack doctors in the slum. Mama Alice says she treats two or three women every week for abortion-related complications.

“They try anything,” she says, looking out over a narrow street where ragged, half-clad children play amid the stench of burning rubbish and rotting vegetables.

Health activists say tens of thousands of unsafe abortions are carried out every day worldwide, and by far the most take place in developing countries such as Kenya.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions and many more suffer lifelong consequences. In Africa, the rate of deaths from abortions is one per 150 procedures, compared with one in 3,700 in rich countries, according to the World Health Organisation.

Unless a woman’s life is at risk, abortion is illegal in Kenya, and can be punished by a prison term of 14 years for the surgeon and seven years for the woman.

Despite the dangers, a recent study estimated that more than 300,000 abortions are carried out in Kenya each year, and that the annual cost of treating the resulting complications exceeds 90 million Kenyan shillings ($1.2 million).


Many in Nairobi’s teeming slums say they have no alternative to termination.

“I just thought I would not be able to support this child,” said Mary, a 25-year-old labourer, as she waited on a plastic chair at Mama Alice’s clinic.

She already has a five-year-old child and aborted a recent pregnancy.

“My child depends on me and I depend on casual work, which there is not much of, so I can’t even support the child I have.”

Activists say the young mother’s plight is typical in Africa, where only wealthy women can afford safe abortions.

Mary was one of Mukuru’s lucky ones. Backstreet abortionists use a horrific array of tools — including sticks, clothes hangers and detergent — to carry out their work. Reproductive health activists say few women are aware of the risks.

“Somebody is not conscious of what will happen. They just want to get rid of that pregnancy,” says Dr Josephine Moyo, a senior adviser at Ipas, a reproductive health group.

“They will do anything, even endanger their own lives.”

Abortion was thrust into the spotlight in Kenya two years ago when a group of street boys found a sack of 15 foetuses dumped in a filthy Nairobi stream.

The “babies-in-a-bag” case shocked the public. Catholic leaders in the overwhelmingly Christian country held a requiem mass to denounce the “terrible holocaust of abortion”.


Women’s activists argue that the scandal overshadowed the real issue: a growing health crisis for poor women. They say that, apart from outlawing abortion which is why women go to backstreet quacks, the government has done little.

Sitting in her timber-built clinic, Mama Alice blames the government and the church, which she says are out of touch with the reality of slums such as Mukuru.

“They are made up of mostly old people,” she says.

“They don’t understand the generation today is quite different from three decades ago.”

Beatrice, a 24-year-old Kenyan who helped a friend obtain an abortion, says it is not fair that young women’s lives should be ruined by babies they are not able to care for.

“She had to move away because people knew she was pregnant,” Beatrice said. “The stigma was too much.”

Sitting in the Ipas office amid the high-rises of downtown Nairobi, Moyo agrees, and says access to safe abortions for Kenya’s poorest women is fast becoming a human rights issue.

“It is not going to affect men. It is only a specific segment of the population: women,” she says. “It is only the woman who dies, nobody else.” — Reuter 

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