After petition, Kenyan church's pro-life billboards removed

NAIROBI — When she quit her job as the Human Resources Director at the Radio Africa Group, home to Kenya’s number one FM station Classic 105, Kathy Kageni-Oganga never thought that two years later she would become the face of the anti-abortion brigade in Kenya.

“I felt that God was calling me to concentrate more in the ministry and that is why I quit employment to dedicate more time to His work,” said Kageni-Oganga, the lead pastor at the Sozo Church of God, a Pentecostal church based in the Nairobi surburbs of Wetlands.

Three months ago, she embarked on an anti-abortion drive with her church to erect 13 billboards in major streets of Nairobi with provocative messages directed at pregnant women. The posters also listed alternatives for pregnant women considering abortion, like a safe house and contacts of adoption agencies.

Eleven Kenyan pro-choice non-government organizations (NGOs) petitioned the government to remove the billboards in May, arguing that the religious leader and her church in Nairobi are fueling stigma against those legally seeking abortion services, including women whose lives are at risk. This week, the advertising company of the billboards took them down due to the months of protests.

Under Kenyan laws, abortion is illegal unless in dire circumstances like when the mother’s life is at risk or the pregnancy came from rape. The NGOs argue that, even though the law is restrictive on which circumstances allow a pregnancy to be terminated, it is still sometimes a prescribed medical procedure. They believe that pro-lifers like Kageni-Oganga are denying access to safe abortion to women who deserve the option.

“Women and girls may seek abortion services when they have suffered a miscarriage, when they have an ectopic pregnancy, when the fetus cannot survive outside the mother’s womb and when they suffer sexual violence,” the joint petition read

Seven Kenyan women die everyday from botched abortions, according to the abortion rights groups. Unsafe abortions account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, compared to 13 percent globally, according to the country’s health ministry.

Some of Kageni-Oganga’s billboards and posters near traffic lights and on electricity poles along Nairobi’s main roads say: “Abortion is Murder!” and “Shut down abortion clinics!” under a picture of a fetus.

“Your mother gave you a chance, it wasn’t easy then too. Give your baby a chance!” another reads.

“The billboards fuel stigma and misinformation on abortion, creating an environment that adversely affects reproductive health providers and women seeking these services,” said Evelyne Opondo, Senior Regional Director for Africa of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Now, all 13 billboards have been taken down.

“They have brought down all of them. I am very concerned,” Kageni-Oganga told RNS. “There have been billboards advertising cigarettes, alcohol and others on gay issues. I don’t know why they targeted ours.”

The debate in Kenya — where 70 percent of the population identifies as Christian — came just as Unplanned, a new movie revealing the operations of American abortion-rights organization Planned Parenthood, hit theaters. When the movie was shown in Nairobi, Kageni Oganga was in full support and asked her congregation to go see it.

Along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, the organizations involved in the petition are the Federation of Women Lawyers, Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa, Red Tape, Ipas-Health Access Rights, Right Here Right Now, Kelin, Xhale Africa, Women’s Link Worldwide, and Reproductive Health Network Kenya.

Kageni-Oganga is not backing down.

“Abortion is murder and that is why it is illegal,” Kageni-Oganga said. “The state’s stand on this is the same as the Bible’s stand and I believe what we are doing is right.”

What pierces her heart most is the fact that those opposed to her billboards are accusing her of not being empathetic enough to victims of rape who might seek abortion services. At 21, Kagendi-Oganga was raped by someone she trusted, a member of her Bible study, she said.  

“So rape is a nightmare I have lived,” she said. “The difference is that even back then I made a vow that even if the sad incident had resulted in pregnancy I was not going to abort. I was ready to bring up the child born out of rape.” 

Kageni-Oganga never told her father about the rape until this year in April, when she gave press interviews about it for the pro-life movement.

“When the story was about to break, I called my father and told him what happened to me,” she said. “My father is a retired military man and when I told him this, his reaction was instant and he started asking who was responsible. It did not matter to him that the incident took place some 20 years ago.”

After 10 years of healing, she says she was able to forgive her rapist, calling it her duty as a Christian.

Late last year, Kageni-Oganga felt a prompting that she needed to do something about rape, a taboo topic in a conservative society like Kenya where most of the cases are never reported largely because of the shame associated with it or threats from the often more powerful perpetrators.  

“I asked those with abortion stories to come forward and share them anonymously. We received more than 3,000 responses and what was surprising was that even men responded saying the women in their lives had aborted and that they were emotionally affected. After praying over the matter I decided to act, hence the billboards,” Kageni-Oganga said.

The response of the congregation was greater than she expected. People gave cash donations and the church is able to rent a safe house for women who decide to keep their babies. Kageni-Oganga also linked up with adoption agencies who are giving the women the choice of giving away their children to deserving couples.