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Mwatha's death will remain controversial

By Irungu Houghton | February 16th 2019
Human Rights defender, the late Caroline Mwatha.

After a week of anxiety driven by the fear of an execution, human rights defender Caroline Mwatha was found in the Nairobi City mortuary. Forty-eight hours later, two independent pathologists concurred she died of excessive bleeding from a crude backstreet abortion. While discussions online have focused much on her, the findings also reveal much about our current state as a country. 

Caroline Mwatha’s work as a case-worker for the Dandora Community Social Justice Centre was as risky as it was unglamorous. The cases often involved excessive use of force and abuse by police officers, unlawful killings as well as violence against women within the community. She spent most of her days interviewing victim’s families combing for evidence that could establish the circumstances of an unlawful killing.

Though she was a founder of the Centre, she was not paid a regular salary. Her work was largely voluntary. It was driven by the need to keep her community safe from all forms of violence. The Social Justice Centres are young, under-resourced and volunteers work long hours with limited support. They are currently punching above their weight for all of us.

Like suicide or euthanasia, abortion is a taboo subject globally. Performing an abortion at the request of a woman is only legal in 30 per cent of the world’s countries. These include the US, Canada, most European countries and China. Some countries like Finland, allow abortions if the social and economic conditions of the mother and father do not support raising of a child. The rest of the world operate with an outright ban (3 per cent) or allow it only to save the life and dignity of the mother (51 per cent).  

Despite the wide variety of approaches to abortion, it is interesting that abortion rates are similar for those countries where the procedure is legal and countries where it is not. Being pro-life or pro-choice doesn’t bring down abortion rates either. According to the World Health Organisation, only increased access to contraception and age appropriate consistent sex education does. Kenya is grappling with the controversy of providing both. In addition, with few exceptions, abortion is still criminalised by Kenyan law and a culture that places rights of the foetus at same level as that of the mother.
At least 1,200 abortions are performed on women and girls in Kenya each day of the year. About a third of them take place to save lives of mothers. Forty five percent of these abortions will occur in the lives of girls between the age of 10 and 19. This danger led to the lifting of a complete ban on post emergency abortion services by Marie Stopes International towards the end of 2018. Although Caroline cannot speak for herself, the agonising question for many women, especially those with low incomes is where do you go when you do not want to continue a pregnancy?

Not one but two parts of Caroline’s life climaxed on the day of the post mortem findings. In two separate courts on different ends of the country, judgements were delivered that have huge implications for stopping police brutality and the use of excessive force in future. Justice Lesit condemned former Ruaraka OCS Nahashon Mutua to death for the brutal murder of Martin Koome six years ago in Nairobi. In Kisumu, baby Pendo’s parents Joseph Abanja and Lancer Achieng’ Abanja found justice in the inquest ruling that five commanders will be legally prosecuted by the DPP for the death of Samantha Pendo during the post elections police operations. These developments may likely have pleased Caroline given her life’s work of securing justice.

Caroline’s post mortem investigation may have brought the matter of cause of death to a close. The continued chatter off and online shows that in the absence of hard evidence and facts and swift action, suspicions will always prevail. Where suspicions are held strongly, they can also have the power of superstitions, widely held but irrational beliefs that have no factual basis. For this reason, the circumstances around her death will remain controversial until the investigations and the court proceedings are complete and we know what exactly happened. Rest in Power Caroline.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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