The Global Abortion Movement: Perspectives from Africa and Beyond
In January 2024, Evelyne Opondo, ICRW Africa Director, attended the “Beyond Borders: How the U.S. can learn from the global abortion movement” event in Washington D.C. She shared her reflections on the event and the current state of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights with ICRW’s VP of Communications, Anne McPherson. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What brought you to this work?
I started my career as a state attorney in the office of Kenya’s Attorney General where I worked on cases associated with the transferral of property from one person to another, primarily following the death of parents or a spouse. In 2001, women often did not hold titles to property and mostly drew their property rights from either their fathers or husbands. (A new provision in the constitution in 2010 changed this). I represented vulnerable women, many of whom were HIV positive and were widowed, before the courts to help them access their rightful share of inheritance. It gave me an understanding of the various ways in which laws systematically undermined the rights of women.
From there, I moved on to the Federation of Women Lawyers, the premiere women rights organization in Kenya and started working on reproductive rights as one of the only few lawyers in the country – and the region – dedicated to the issue at the time. Even among human rights defenders, the mention of the word abortion was heavily stigmatized. We led in drafting of a reproductive health bill, which made provisions around access to abortion. We openly used the term “abortion” despite push back and boldly affirmed our support for abortion rights when it was unpopular and dangerous. My colleagues and I even received death threats orchestrated by an American citizen, yet we persisted with our mission. Since then, we’ve trained and mentored many others to understand and become champions of reproductive rights. It’s incredible to see the progress we’ve made in 20 years.
Why was the beyond borders event so important to happen now? What’s at stake for abortion rights?
This event came two years after the Dobbs decision, which underscored the fragility of abortion rights and highlighted the need for sustained long-term advocacy efforts. Protecting these rights is an ongoing battle, as gains can be overturned even after decades of progress.
The convening united individuals and organizations from around the world who were championing abortion rights advocacy during a time when we are seeing escalating, and highly coordinated, backlash across various regions.
For instance, in Africa, the backlash we observe is not native but rather imported and replicated from regions like the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. Politicians and activists often test these strategies in countries like Kenya before attempting broader implementation across the continent.
The event provided a platform for reflecting, sharing and brainstorming among those on the frontlines for SRHR. We discussed the current landscape, identified challenges, and strategized on how to organize effectively to safeguard the gains we’ve made. By fostering solidarity and learning from one another, we can avoid reinventing the wheel and effectively counter the strategies employed by anti-SRHR groups globally.
Can you share more about the current state of abortion SRHR in Kenya and the broader region?
Africa is the only region that has a treaty that explicitly protects abortion. The Maputo Protocol on Womens Rights, protects abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape,incest,danger to health or life of the mother or life of fetus.
In contrast to the recent legal developments in the United States, there’s been a noticeable trend in Africa towards progress regarding abortion rights. Several African countries, including Benin, Rwanda, Ethiopia, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) among others, have expanded their abortion laws in recent years.
While I was Regional Director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights, we conceptualized, filed and won a landmark case in Kenya that expanded the scope of legal abortion to recognize rape, mental and social wellbeing as part of the legal grounds for accessing abortion in conformity with the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of health. WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In 2010, the Kenyan constitution included language legal abortion when the life or health of the woman is in danger or in cases of emergency.
Despite legal progress, there’s a significant gap between laws and the reality on the ground. While a number of healthcare providers risk their freedom to provide the much needed abortion services, many continue to face arrests and prosecutions for providing these services even when they are lawful, highlighting the challenges in ensuring practical access for women and girls.
Furthermore, anti-abortion groups, often backed by evangelical organizations, have been actively working to impede access to abortion services in Africa. They employ various tactics, including legal challenges imported from the U.S. and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation to the public.
In response, pro-abortion advocates are organizing within individual countries and across the region to defend and advance reproductive rights. They learn from each other’s experiences, particularly from regions where anti-abortion groups have a longer history and have been more successfully resisted.
What is ICRW doing to uphold reproductive rights? What is our unique role in this space?
ICRW is a research organization focused on identifying key evidence gaps and proposing solutions to address them. In Africa, we generate contextually relevant evidence to advance rights-based sexual and reproductive health policies, programs, and practices. We collaborate with grassroots organizations to address community-level concerns regarding sexual and reproductive health, informing advocacy efforts and policy decisions.
We provide evidence not only to non-governmental organizations but also to governmental entities seeking clarity on policy directions. Additionally, we work with partners to generate data for effective programing , enabling them to assess impact and make necessary adjustments.
Our work spans research, evidence generation, policy advocacy at local, regional, and global levels, and partnerships across various movements. We recognize that progress is achieved through solidarity and are committed to both advancing and safeguarding gains in sexual and reproductive health.
What did you learn at the event that you didn’t know before? Was there a particularly inspiring speaker?
I recently learned about the significant challenges facing the U.S., especially with the emergence of new bills in various states regarding abortion rights. There has been a perception that the U.S. had made substantial progress in this area and had moved past certain conversations. It raised questions about whether similar efforts might be replicated in our region and whether we’re prepared to respond effectively.
I also drew inspiration from Latin America, a region with many countries that consider themselves conservative or highly religious, yet have made significant strides in reproductive rights.The Green Wave movement serves as a powerful example of how interests can be consolidated across movements, countries, and issues. This is something we can learn from and aspire to emulate.
I was particularly inspired by Michelle Goodwin, Professor of Constitutional Law and Global Health Policy; Co-Faculty Director, O’Neill Institute, who’s opening remarks skillfully connected reproductive rights with racial justice in a way that resonated with me deeply. It was a perspective I hadn’t encountered before and found truly inspiring.