The United Nations and Kenyan government on Monday came under fire on the eve a global conference on sexual and reproductive health, with Christian groups claiming hosting the event was promoting abortion and homosexuality in the east African nation.
More than 6,000 participants – including heads of state, government ministers, financial institutions, donors, and civil society groups – from 160 nations, are due at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Nairobi.
The three-day meeting will focus on issues ranging from maternal deaths and child marriage, to sex education and female genital mutilation.
But the Holy See, as well as local faith-based groups and pro-life campaigners, have criticised the gathering that starts on Tuesday.
“The agenda of this conference does not represent the spirit of African culture, which is predominantly pro-life, and the Constitution of Kenya, which declares life begins at conception, and unborn babies deserve the right to life,” said Luis Losada from CitizenGO, a Christian campaign group.
“Africans are being blackmailed: If you want development aid, you have to embrace abortion,” said Losada, adding that Kenya was receiving funding from the government of Denmark to co-host the event with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
According to Kenya’s constitution, abortion is permitted only when a woman’s life or health is in danger.
CitizenGo, as well as some Kenyan parliamentarians and Catholic bishops, said the meeting – which will include discussions on access to sexual health services for the LGBT+ community – will also encourage homosexuality.
Same-sex relations are illegal in Kenya, and punishable with up to 14 years in jail.
The Vatican said on Friday it would not participate in the Nairobi Summit, as the agenda had been reduced to sexual and reproductive health rights and sex education, and did not take into account the views of all nations.
“The organizers’ decision to focus the conference on a few controversial and divisive issues that do not enjoy international consensus and that do not reflect accurately the broader population and development agenda outlined by the ICPD, is regrettable,” said the Holy See in a statement.
The conference should instead focus on women and children living in extreme poverty, migration, and support for the family as the basic unit of society, it added.
Every day, more than 800 women die from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, while 33,000 girls are forced into marriage, according to the UNFPA.
More than 230 million women want to prevent pregnancy, but are not using modern contraception, and every year more than four million girls face female genital mutilation.
Kenya’s limits on abortion have driven thousands of women and girls to unregulated clinics, say women’s rights groups.
Almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 – the most recent data available – with one in four women and girls suffering complications, according to government data.
“This is a global summit, not a Kenya summit. This is an important issue for women and girls and that is why we cannot shy away from these difficult issues,” said Arthur Erken, UNFPA’s Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships.
“These are issues that need to be discussed … What to do with it afterward is the sovereign right of every nation.”
A senior government official said a lot of misinformation had been spread about the summit’s agenda, and authorities had been engaging with faith-based organisations to ensure that concerns were addressed.
“There is no attempt to push issues like homosexuality and abortion at this conference,” said Saitoti Torome, principal secretary at the state department of planning at the finance ministry.
-Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla – Thomson Reuters Foundation