Theocracy: a brief story of Kenya project
by John Ouma
“There is in every village a torch – the teacher: and an extinguisher – the clergyman”
The Reproductive Healthcare Bill, 2019 that, as of the time of writing of this article, is at the third reading stage before the Senate, has triggered fresh conversation on sexuality, morality, abortion and the reality of life as it’s lived today in Kenya. This comes at a time when the country is witnessing a spike in cases of rape, teenage pregnancies and gender based violence.
In substance, the conversation has digressed from the ‘meat’ of the Bill; the reproductive challenges that women face, to the old position of ‘us against them’, to which the church is at the thick.
This argument endeavors to shed light on Kenya project operating as a theocracy, politics of morality and why the issue of teenage pregnancies is fundamentally a political problem.
Religion as a tool of governance: the story of Kenya state
Essentially, as political theorist Rajeev Bhargava notes, the state should be separated from religious institutions to check religious tyranny, oppression, hierarchy or sectarianism and to promote religious and non-religious freedom equalities and solidarity among citizens. When the state enters into an unchecked, intimate relationship with the church, (the church here refers to religious institutions) a theocracy develops; a system in which God or a deity is recognised as the supreme civil ruler. Kenya isn’t there yet. And I am not trying to say that a theocracy is especially bad.
But statements like “so and so has been chosen by God as president” in an election that is later proven to be shambolic, remind us of how a theocracy manifests itself. Where gender sensitive health policies, for example, are required, a state that operates as a theocracy will tend to vacillate, to brown-nose its relationship with the church.
Theocracy, if unchecked, can inspire, as history tells us, questionable decisions. When the administration of George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, despite reservations by United Nations, Bush said God had told him to do so. Similarly, he prevented a medical research that was trying to look into safe abortion practice when he was Governor of Texas.
We all know how religious absolutism operated in Afghanistan under the Taliban where homosexuals were executed by being buried alive. We also know that God-fearing Syria is by far violent than, say, atheist Netherlands. And so recent statements coming from the church casting proponents of ‘safe’ abortion and comprehensive sexuality education as public enemies are worrying.
Why labelling abortionists as public enemies is dangerous
In his column in the Sunday Standard, June 28, 2020, David Oginde of Christ Is the Answer (CITAM) wrote, “Recently reported numbers of teen pregnancies across the country since the Covid-19 lockdown of schools are certainly beyond reality and are simply meant to set an obvious but sinister agenda…the proposed Comprehensive Sexuality Education and the Reproductive Healthcare Bill are poisoned chalice that we should never allow into our society…”
Statements from various religious authorities have used strong and sometimes misleading words in reference to Reproductive Healthcare Bill. Without examining the root cause to the problem, the church has adopted a bellicose attitude and tone in its sustained objection to the Bill. This position, many agree, is a potential catalyst of anarchy.
On July 1994, American reverend Paul Hill killed Dr John Britton and his bodyguard James Barret in the former’s clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Hill said he killed Britton to avoid future deaths of innocent babies.
Randull Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue – an American organization for intimidating abortion providers – is quoted saying, “when I, or people like me, are running this country, you’d (abortion providers) better flee, because we will find you, we will try you and, and we’ll execute you…”
Pro-life people argue that an embryo is a baby, killing it is therefore murder, and that’s that. A human embryo is an example of human life. Consequentialists on the other hand look at it differently: does the embryo suffer? Does it have a nervous system?
I am not here to argue for or against abortion. My point is that in a highly churched society like Kenya, the caustic tone adopted by the church on the matter of abortion is dangerous. Instead of interpreting the reality, the church is giving the matter an interpretation of its own. The church, like George Magoha of Ministry of Education, has not only cast doubt on the veracity of the teenage pregnancy figures, it has branded those calling for a practical solution, as, in the words of David Oginde, “hawks with less than positive intentions”.
A study conducted by Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance (RHRA) concluded that stigmatization by religion drives young women to procure abortion, and that religion doesn’t play a significant role in youth sexuality other than influencing use and access to contraception. It also found out that parents/guardians often force their pregnant adolescents to procure abortion.
Facts about the state of a Kenyan teenager from a poor household paint a different picture; a picture that captures abortion as a pragmatic rather than a religious logic. An estimated 13, 000 Kenyan girls drop out of school annually as a result of pregnancies, and about 17 per cent of girls have had sex, under some form of force, before the age of 15. Of the 316, 560 cases of abortion procured in the country every year, almost 50 per cent involve women aged between 14 and 24. Another 120, 000 women and girls are hospitalized each year due to abortion-related complications, making unsafe abortion a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality in the country.
A similar research by Marie Stopes International indicate that 41 per cent of unintended pregnancies end up being aborted. 2, 600 women and girls die annually due to abortion or its related complications; an average of seven deaths every day. 64.8 per cent of girls from Korogocho slum interviewed in 2010 were Christians and 60 per cent were between the age of 18 and 22 year. The reality of life as it is lived in low-income areas where sexual abuse, extreme poverty and low levels of education expose women and girls to sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies and disease is increasingly not captured in the church’s approach to sexuality and abortion.
Women and girls procure abortion regardless of the position of the church or the faith they profess. In short, by restricting the conversation within the conservatism rim, religious censorship on abortion can be seen as a violation of freedom of conscience.
But even if these figures were exaggerated, and such research funded by ‘donors’ as the church wants us to believe, it is difficult to overlook the seriousness of abortion, teenage and/or unintended pregnancies. Consequently, a knee-jerk response that includes such things as teaching values in schools, as suggested by the church, is especially ineffective. You can teach children to abstain from sex, but you cannot claim control over their decision to whether or not indulge in it. It’s this type of decision that the Reproductive Healthcare Bill, sponsored by Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika seeks to strengthen.
Another argument that has gained traction in the recent times is the role politicians play in shaping morality. By virtue of their influence on the masses, politicians have framed a type of morality that thrives on verbal and sexual diatribes.
By placing a knife on moral convention, politicians have facilitated decay of societies
Sexual consciousness in this day and age of globalization has drastically arisen. Zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the times’ has inspired a secular understanding of sex. This, however, isn’t just a Kenyan problem; politicians world over cultivate and preserve their sway and public likability by trading sexual diatribe.
Self-styled Kenyan politician Paul Ongili alias Babu Owino is popular for his sexual remarks dating back to his days at the University of Nairobi. Late 2019, he published a controversial tweet that came out for violence against women, if stripped down to its bare bones. He wrote,
“Alice Wahome must respect Baba and president Uhuru or we will shave every part of her body that has hair. This is not a threat it’s a promise”
In the same thread, he detractively told off Nairobi City County Member of Parliament, Esther Passaris for construing his tweet (quoted above) within the obvious context. He wrote:
“I know you (Esther Passaris) are in that time of the month. So I will not engage hormones”
U.S President Donald J. Trump, is notorious for his belittling and offensive language against women. He made headlines in 2005 with his “grabbing women by the pussy” comment in a Hollywood show. Trump has been quoted widely in the past and present for his derogatory comments on women within and without his circle. In 2016, at the run up to presidential elections, he wrote on twitter, in reference to journalist Megyn Kelly, then a news anchor at Fox News;
“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever”
In 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, then the major of Davao City, was quoted saying, with reference to a rape incident that involved an Australian missionary during a prison riot;
“But she was so beautiful, the major (him) should have been first. What a waste”
Mr Duterte who enjoys in-fine-feather public likability, has a deep history of vulgar outburst and use of crass and defaming language on women.
Sex, as it has been said, is a political weapon that can be employed to perpetuate consensual domination. At the backdrop of technological revolution, with advent of smart phones and fast-speed internet, people have become more sexually imaginative and credulous without paying much attention to the dynamics of the world in which and with which they exist.
By knowing what resonates with their audience, politicians use public platforms to influence national discourse in a type of language with a dearth of morality.
Why comprehensive sex education is critical
‘Safe’ abortions, as KHRC notes, are economically out of reach for most of the victims of sexual violence, this leaves them with no option but to go for unsafe abortions. Also, reproductive health facilities are not friendly to sexually active adolescents; a major factor that has contributed to limited knowledge on safe sex practice among adolescents. Studies also show that young and poorly educated women and girls are more likely to procure abortion compared to their rich and educated peers.
To reduce cases of teen pregnancies, comprehensive sex education is clearly needed, because the truth is, teenagers, as a result of ‘spirit of the times’ – shaped by, among other things, pop music – indulge in sex at a young age. Some of the most effective ways of helping adolescents are: one, empowering them with information about their sexuality. This will go a long way in raising their consciousness with regard to their rights.
The position of the church that the figures have purposefully be blown out of proportion is neither here nor there. At any rate, sexual assault cases aren’t matters to be judged based on how many happen in truth. Even a single case is enough to prompt action. Also, there’s need to financially empower households in low-income neighborhoods where economic difficulties force women and girls to indulge in sexual activities to make ends meet.
Two, law enforcement agencies should be restructured to expedite dispensation of justice where cases of defilement, rape, and sexual assault are involved. Some religions are known to insist that such cases be solved out of court at the expense of justice. To achieve these, the state must separate its self from the church.
John Ouma is a journalism student and a coming writer