Co-opting liberation theology could turn around fight for women’s rights


Women’s rights movement in Kenya counts religious and faith-based actors as some of its most formidable foes in the struggle for women and girls’ rights.

The current battleground is the Reproductive Health Bill 2019, whether or not it should become law.

The women lobby’s fight to ensure it becomes law could turn around the stiff religious opposition by co-opting liberation theology as an ally.

The bill, which rights advocates argue is urgent and long overdue, seeks to provide a framework governing access to family planning, safe motherhood, termination of pregnancy, reproductive health of adolescents and assisted reproduction.

They argue that these are human rights issues and that grounding them in law offers the best safeguard for the most vulnerable.

One of the major concerns is unsafe abortion brought about by desperation and lack of an alternative, imperilling many women’s lives. Another concern is the social problem of adolescent pregnancies running into hundreds of thousands each year.

How to address these two issues has raised some of the most contentious by faith-based actors.

“The bill’s wording on sexual and reproductive health and rights is deliberately ambiguous, and therefore is code for abortion,” the Kenya Conference Catholic Bishops contend in a letter to legislators,  expressing their opposition.

Thus it is, led by the Conference, religious leaders are deeply opposed to provisions on comprehensive sex education in schools to address the pregnancies, and provisions affirming circumstances for termination of pregnancy, though a version of this latter already exists in law.

But it is a measure of religious leaders influence on public policy that the bill is now stuck in the legislature. This is despite having sailed through the second reading in the Senate last June and was set for the third reading in the process to become law.

Passing the bill up to the second stage shows the legislators thought it had merit. But political expediency means it may not move because religious leaders influence a large section of their constituencies.

The rigid moral stance of the religious leaders also means that, while propositions in the bill offer a demonstrable solution as argued below, it risks benefiting none – believers and nonbelievers, alike.

One can understand the religious leaders’ moral concerns. Though well-meant however, they seem unenlightened. Thus, it will be the argument here that their ethical concerns will be better served to consider the precepts of liberation theology.

Liberation theology features many strands, but they all interpret the Bible in light of the social situation of those on the margins—the poor, the oppressed and other marginalised groups, who include women and girls.

For this reason, there are feminist strands of liberation theology, which the women’s rights movement could seek out to join forces in pushing for the bill.

In seeking out the feminist theologians, it is suggested here to reflect on adolescent girls—not only because their young age elicits some of the most emotive social concern, but because the most vulnerable are marginalised and often grow up to become women living with health risks, in addition to being susceptible to oppressive socio-economic conditions.

It is well acknowledged that adolescents, defined by the United Nations as aged between 10 to 19 years, are engaging in sex. It is also a fact that adolescent girls are getting pregnant, some as young as 10 years old.

Nearly 47 per cent of teenagers in the country engage in sex by the time they are 18. That’s nearly a half of all teenagers, over 5.4 million of them, to extrapolate the figure from the 2019 census.

During three months of lockdown up to July this year, 152,000 adolescent girls became pregnant. It was a 40 per cent increase in the monthly average.

For most of the girls, as need not be emphasised, pregnancy and childbirth are neither planned nor wanted.

And because abortion is highly restricted in the country, the adolescents typically resort to unsafe abortion putting their health and lives at risk, as happened in September this year with the death of a teenager in Kakamega County.

The boys are mainly unaffected. But many of the girls are forced to discontinue their education. This minimises their chances of gainful employment, initiating a cycle of economic disadvantage that follows them to adulthood in a life characterised by poverty and exploitation.

One hopes the teenagers had been aware of the consequences. But many are not.

Alarmingly, some do not even know what sex is about. According to Google’s most-searched issue in 2019, the predominant question on the platform asked by young Kenyans was, “What is sex?”

Knowledge and information on sex are crucial. Studies show that giving comprehensive information and education is critical to reducing adolescent risk of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

It enhances skills and attitude of youth and adolescents on sexual and reproductive health, leading to behavioural change enabling young people to make evidence-based and informed decisions with responsible choices.

The studies also show that programmes that ignore comprehensive sex education and exclusively encourage abstinence do not seem to reduce incidence of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Either the Conference of Bishops is unaware of the studies, or has chosen to ignore them, despite the association of Catholic doctors that presumably could offer informed advice. In a statement read out to congregants during a televised Sunday Mass just after the second reading of the bill, the religious leaders were adamant:

“We are totally opposed to those trying to introduce Comprehensive Sexual Education in schools as a way of curbing teenage pregnancies,” the statement read.

They blame teenage pregnancies on moral decay and parental neglect, urging parents to inculcate strong family values and personal responsibility.

This is also not informed by research. Other studies show that a large section of parents either don’t know much about issues related to sex or aren’t comfortable engaging with adolescents on these matters.

This may partly explain why, despite the Church’s well-meant intention to curb the problem, their pulpit exhortations have not resulted in reduced numbers of teen pregnancies over the years, despite the clergy’s spirited opposition to similar efforts as the Reproductive Health Bill 2019.

Perhaps realising this, some parents have resorted to putting their school-going daughters on contraceptives as the adolescent pregnancy crisis has raged during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

One can assume the faith-based opposition means no harm. But to cling to dogma and, therefore, not willing to give legal solutions proposed in the bill a chance exposes a moral flaw that. In the face of the adolescent pregnancy crisis, adamantly not examining the failure of their moral exhortations, seems callous and a great social injustice.

It is here that liberation theology, and particularly the African feminist strand, would lend its precepts.

Formed in the late 1980s under the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, the African (including Kenyan) feminist strand draws its inspiration from the Latin American and African American versions of liberation theology.

One of its aims is “to undertake research that unveils both positive and negative religio-cultural factors, beliefs, and myths that affect, influence, or hamper women’s development”.

It is an objective that resonates with the more secular women’s rights movement.

And, given the theologians scholarly bent as articulated in the objective, it is not likely they would countenance the claim in the Conference of Bishops’ letter to legislators that the bill “goes against the teaching of the Gospel” regarding sexuality and abortion.

Their research would bear out that The New Testament, which presupposes the Gospel, does not explicitly refer to sex. Any pronouncements on sexuality are derived and amount to conjecture. Neither does it explicitly deal with abortion.

And while the Old Testament has several passages that refer to abortion, they deal with it in terms of loss of property and not the sanctity of life.

The oft-cited passage by abortion opponents is Exodus 21:22–23, reads: If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life . . .

Paying a fine for miscarriage places the status of the foetus as property. The injury of the woman is not worth consideration, affirming the oppressed situation she finds herself in the Scriptures.

The law as prescribed in the Book of Exodus may have been just in the biblical times, but in the 21st Century, it would be a metaphor for unenlightened paternalism in which the “no serious injury” the woman’s pain is disregarded may symbolise the ignored lived experience of vulnerable women and girls.

As has been affirmed, the African Women’s theology is a liberation theology that speaks about “an ethics of resistance and transformation” that needs to be “gospel justice” oriented rather than “gospel culture” oriented—one that aids African men and women to deal with all the categories of domination and oppression.

Applying this aid would go some way in enlightening the Church leadership that is mostly male. The feminist theologians would score for women and girls, complementing the more secular objectives of the women’s movement.

As with feminist theologians in other more radical traditions, they could win pointing out that nature and biology are not the “destiny” of women, but rather sexist culture and socialisation that visits injustice on women prescribing outdated notions that ignore how it impacts their lives.

The country boasts a number of feminist theologians. But they have been silent. The women’s rights movement should consider enlisting them from academe into the trenches.

Gitura Mwaura is a writer and development journalist

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