Here’s What Was Missing From Obama’s Inspiring Speech on Women’s Rights in Kenya

If the president wants Kenyan women and girls to be treated equally, he could help by lifting one major restriction.
Kenyan women sell posters and shirts during Obama's visit. (Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)
Jul 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“There is no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence,” President Barack Obama said to a crowd of cheering Kenyans on Sunday as he challenged the East African nation to support women’s rights.

Twenty to 30 percent of Kenyan women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, frequently before the age of 18. Assault often leads to the spread of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies, curtailing health and education.

“Any nation that fails to [allow women] to meet their maximum potential is doomed to fall behind in the global economy,” Obama added. Yet, the U.S. has yet to do its part to ensure that women can truly succeed by granting them access to reproductive care that sometimes includes abortions.

The commander in chief failed to address abortion rights during his trip to Kenya, despite a request made in a letter from 71 different rights organizations.

Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International, the National Organization for Women, and dozens of others urged the president to consider loosening the interpretation on a U.S. antiabortion rule that has left African women vulnerable to dangerous and illegal procedures.

Although the U.S. sends aid to African countries for reproductive care and is able to do so for abortion procedures, it has a rather generic catch. The 1973 Helms Amendment states that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” While rape victims and women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy are arguably not using abortion in lieu of contraception or abstinence, the vague definition has subsequently cut off all aid for abortion services under any circumstances.

“The failure to end the overly restrictive implementation of the Helms Amendment leads to preventable deaths and injuries among the world’s most vulnerable women and violates their fundamental human rights,” the letter from the advocates reads, urging the president to take time to speak with on-the-ground medical groups in Kenya.

Of the 287,000 annual maternal deaths worldwide, 13 percent are a result of illegal abortion, often in countries where abortion is legal.

In Kenya, abortion is permitted under limited circumstances as of a 2010 constitutional amendment, but few health care professionals know how to perform the procedure, owing to Kenya’s Ministry of Health’s ban on abortion training sessions. The vast majority of the 467,000 abortions performed in Kenya each year are done so in secret, unsafe conditions, according to a 2012 study by Kenyan health officials and the Guttmacher Institute. Nearly 120,000 women suffered from abortion-related complications, including fever, sepsis, and organ failure.

Implementing a less strict version of the Helms Amendment that allows for abortions under certain circumstances would help women and girls without rewriting the law. While abortion rights are slowly being chipped away in the U.S., even the most conservative lawmakers support abortion access in instances of rape or danger to the mother.

As Obama encourages Kenyans to prioritize girls, allowing American government-funded health facilities to help these very women will increase equality in health care and therefore educational and economic opportunities.