We in the sector have urged for a holistic approach to addressing social drivers of risk such as lack of age-appropriate Sexual Reproductive Health information and youth-friendly services.
Sexual and reproductive health rights in Kenya as in the rest of the East African region remain problematic. Even as countries enact laws and sign conventions committing to ensure access to services, challenges stand in the way of respecting these rights.
These challenges include limited resources, misplaced priorities, lack of political goodwill, cultural norms, beliefs, and practices that fail to recognize the universality of these rights and their importance.
Even worse is the fact that little effort is invested in ensuring community awareness, breaking cultural barriers to adopting and respecting these rights, and localizing the laws and conventions is done. Kenya and other countries within the region have ratified several commitments since the recognition of Sexual and reproductive health as a human right at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and as an explicit target of SDGs.
Some global and regional sexual and reproductive health rights commitments include but are not limited to Generation Equality Forum (GEF), ICPD25, African Union Agenda 2063, Maputo Plan of Action, Campaign on Accelerated Reduction on Maternal Mortality in Africa, the Eastern and Southern Africa Ministerial Commitment on sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people among others.
Kenya is not short of policies just as in other countries. What we lack is the political goodwill to implement the policies and enhance access to reproductive health services by our people. Many of the global commitments that our African Governments make remain in the board rooms where the meetings happen. We rarely localize the interventions and commitments on the same.
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While institutions like the Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK) and other partners have done a lot in expanding access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services in the country, targeting adolescents, caregivers, and others, more support especially from the government is needed.
The implementation of the laws and policies on SRHR in the country remains problematic either because of extreme religious, cultural, and or political standpoints. Because of moral and cultural beliefs, many people continue experiencing the violation of their sexual and reproductive health rights, because many associate and perceive them to be strange and coming from outside Africa.
We are concerned that several old-held cultural norms and moral stands by some opinion leaders are increasingly influencing government agencies and discouraging them from getting involved in decision-making forums through weaponizing culture and religion, thus frustrating the implementation of sexual and reproductive health rights commitments. This, they note has led to eroding of SRHR laws and increased intimidation, harassment, and attacks on healthcare providers, advocates, and persons seeking services, including key populations.
Culture of silence
It’s sad that many people of reproductive age especially youth and adolescents continue to suffer in silence because of a lack of access to safe and legal abortion information and services, access to comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraceptives, and related information.
We in the sector have urged for a holistic approach to addressing social drivers of risk such as lack of age-appropriate Sexual Reproductive Health information and youth-friendly services, poverty, and gender inequity, investing in education and implementation of existing policies and guidelines, providing menstrual hygiene information and products to adolescent girls, and investing in empowerment programs targeting parents/guardians and teachers.
While we have legislated against regressive laws, policies, and practices that do not respect individuals’ autonomy and decision-making, the political will and support is missing to implement these commitments. They remain on paper and are largely strange to our people.
Our experience with legal measures to ensure access to services and protection of sexual and reproductive health rights indicates that legislation alone is not sufficient, and a multi-sectoral approach is necessary.
We need not only the political will but mass social mobilization and changing social norms and mindsets, localization of the interventions and resources, that allow the different sectors to play a role and influence the national discourse on the issue, sway public opinion, and assist in community mobilization towards a change of behaviour.
The writer is the Executive Director, of the Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK)