NAIROBI, KENYA – Grace Anindo, a 15-year-old girl from Nairobi’s Kibera slum, suspected she was pregnant just days before planning to start secondary school in February 2012.
She was living with her aunt, who offered to pay her school fees because her parents couldn’t afford to educate her.
“I was so scared,” she says. “My dreams of becoming a nurse to rescue my parents from poverty seemed to have been suddenly dashed.”
When the time came for the required medical tests, Grace refused to go and ran away from her aunt’s home. She then went to a clinic within the slum that confirmed her fears that she was pregnant.
She considered getting a clandestine abortion, as abortion is illegal in Kenya except under emergency circumstances. But she says that stories she had heard of girls dying in the slum’s clinics while undergoing the procedure dissuaded her.
Instead, she confided in a friend about the pregnancy, who then volunteered to take her to Kiota Rescue Centre, a home in Muranga county about 100 kilometers north of Nairobi that provides a safe place for pregnant girls rejected by their families.
“I was scared at first, but I now love my new home,” Grace says as she stretches on the sofa in the home’s living room.
Her five-month baby bump is clearly visible, and her skin glows. She is hopeful that after giving birth, she will go back to school and continue pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse.
“Kiota” is a Kiswahili word that means a nest where birds care for their eggs until they hatch. The center, comprising one big house and an expansive compound, looks like any other home in the lush, green neighborhood of Kiambuthia, an area of rolling hills covered by tea plants. It is run by the Protecting Life Movement Trust, a ministry of various churches that aims to uphold the sanctity of life, especially of unborn children.
Abortion is illegal in Kenya under most circumstances. But unqualified medical practitioners can be found to perform the procedure in backstreet clinics, often resulting in death, medical complications or infertility. The Kiota Rescue Centre aims to offer an alternative to teenagers who become pregnant and face rejection from their families and school dropouts. It also aims to prepare the teens for their future parenting responsibilities as well as to expand across Kenya.
Every year, more than 2,600 women die from complications from unsafe abortions in Kenya, and 21,000 women are hospitalized with complications from incomplete and unsafe abortions, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international organization that uses law to advance reproductive freedom.
Kenya’s penal code makes it a felony for pregnant women to induce or to obtain an abortion. The penalty is seven years in prison for the women and 14 years for anyone who performs an abortion.
In 2010, Article 26 of the new Kenyan Constitution decriminalized abortion if a trained health professional determines a need for emergency treatment or that the life or health of the mother is in danger.
Still, pro-life groups say there is no excuse for abortion.
“Our stand on abortion is clear,” says Kennedy Kitonga of Protecting Life Movement Trust. “It is not even debatable.”
But pro-choice advocates say this leads to clandestine abortions, which harms the health of expecting mothers.
A clinical officer, who has undergone basic training in medicine and sought anonymity to protect his career, says abortion is big business in Kenya, especially in Nairobi slums. He says he receives up to five abortion requests a day while working in various clinics in Nairobi’s Kawangware slums.
“The women can get the services even with as little as 2,000 shillings ($20),” he says. “In case of complications, they have to seek further treatment on their own because no medical practitioner wants to risk arrest.”
Because of the ease in access to clandestine abortions, Dr. Joseph Karanja, a top gynecologist at Kenyatta National Hospital, says Kenya needs to decriminalize abortion to end deaths of women and girls.
“The law is now favorable as per Articles 26(4) and 43(1) and (2),” he says, citing later sections that refer to the rights of all citizens to the highest standards of health. “What we need to do now is to implement these sections.”
The Kiota Rescue Centre founder, Dr. Jean Kaggia, a gynecologist, says this need to provide an alternative for abortion inspired her to start the home.
“Teenage pregnancy is a social problem that needs a social solution,” she says. “I realized that you cannot discourage girls from going for abortion without providing an alternative. It is like advising someone who is starving not to steal food without providing any.”
She says although there are no records to show how common abortion is among teenage girls, a 2004 study on abortion-related cases by a private researcher at Coast Province General Hospital in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, showed that 16 percent of women admitted either after abortion or miscarriages were teenage girls.
At Kiota Rescue Centre, Grace lives with seven other girls who are in various stages of pregnancy, except for 12-year-old Jackie Mwende, who gave birth in April. The home reconnects girls with their families as soon as they deliver, but its administration has allowed Jackie to stay on with her child since she is unable to speak.
The home first opened its doors for stranded pregnant girls in 2009. The first was a 14-year-old girl from western Kenya.
So far, the home has admitted 27 girls, ranging from 12 to 30 years old, Kaggia says. The home does not allow self-admission. A guardian such as a parent, close relative or friend must bring the girls and provide background information.
“We provide a safe haven for the girls, while at the same time, giving parents time to cool off,” Kaggia says. “We are happy that most of them are ready to take their daughters back to school and colleges once they go back home.”
Zipporah Gikungu, the house mother in charge of running the home on a daily basis, says there have been few complications at the center.
“A 16-year-old girl, Elizabeth Asimu from Emuhaya, western Kenya, lost her child last year,” she says. “That is the only death case from this home. We’ve also had one HIV/AIDS case, but the girl gave birth to a healthy baby and even breastfed him.”
Mary Wambui is currently the eldest girl at the home. The 22-year-old mother is in her sixth month of pregnancy.
“My boyfriend wanted me to terminate the pregnancy, but I refused,” says the young woman from Limuru, a town located approximately 50 kilometers from Nairobi.
She was living alone, performing menial jobs in town to earn a living when she became pregnant. She says a friend introduced her to the Kiota Rescue Centre.
“I’m very happy to have found this place,” Wambui says. “Once my baby is born, I’ll be able to go search for employment and take care of her.”
Valentine Anyango, 21, in her fifth month of pregnancy, says she hadn’t planned for her pregnancy. She went to see a counselor for guidance, who introduced her to the rescue center.
“When I got here, my mind settled,” she says. “And I felt rescued because all my friends and relatives were against me, and I was confused on whether to keep or terminate it.”
She encourages young women to share information with others so they can get help but warns that not all advice is right.
“Abortion is not a choice,” she says, advising girls engaging in unsafe sex to think about themselves and the consequence of their actions.
Sabina Fatima, 19, is also living at the home awaiting her due date. She used to live alone and discovered she was pregnant after she had broken up with her boyfriend. She says the home has made her pregnancy easier, as she is able to find support here.
The center also aims to prepare the young women for their futures as mothers.
A typical day at the home starts at 7 a.m. when the girls on duty prepare breakfast. At 7:30 a.m., they have morning devotion. The girls have a rotation for performing chores in the home, which include sweeping, cooking and washing dishes.
Some of the pregnant young women spend time in the small garden, where they grow vegetables for their own consumption. The center also has a project for making beaded jewelry, cards, mats and detergents.
In the afternoons, the house mothers provide the girls with lessons in life skills.
“We ensure that by the time they leave the home, they are empowered with knowledge on contraceptives and other sexual matters so they don’t find themselves in the same circumstances in the future,” Gikungu says.
Two of the girls who delivered at the home have married since leaving, and several others, like Joy Matesi, have gone back to school. Matesi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now a 10th-grade student at a refugee camp in northern Kenya.
A Christian family donated the home, and the center depends on monetary, food and clothing donations for its daily functioning. A donor from the Kiambuthia area recently donated a cow to the center, so the girls now have a constant supply of milk, Kaggia says.
The Kiota Rescue Centre strives to open rescue homes in every county by 2020 to reduce the number of clandestine abortions in Kenya, Kaggia says.
“We have already received two more homes in Kwale, Coast province, and another one in Naivasha from well-wishers, which will be opening very soon,” Kaggia says.