NERIMA: Population conference was more than abortion, birth control

Monday November 18 2019

Women from various informal settlements in Nairobi call for empowerment of women and girls in the grassroots as they welcome the 25th International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 13, 2019. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP


English has a popular phrase, “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water”. There are many theories about its origins. Some people say it originated in the medieval times, others say it is from Germany. We have probably used this phrase before, but don’t really know what it means. It means that in the process of getting rid of a bad thing, be careful not to do away with a good thing

One explanation claims the phrase was inspired by the living conditions that prevailed during the Middle Ages. Most people could hardly afford to have a bath as water was scarce. When they did bath, all members of a family used the same water. The father, as the head of the house, would bath first, followed by the mother and then the children in the order of their birth. Naturally, the baby would be last. You can imagine how dirty the water would be at the end, probably enough for a baby to risk being discarded unnoticed when the tub was emptied.

History lesson aside, the International Conference on Population and Development was held in Nairobi this past week, literally in the centre of Nairobi. Traffic in the city is normally a nightmare, but during the week I realised that there can be something worse than a nightmare. The city was gridlock. There were points during the day that traffic stood still while VIP cars, with flags flapping, whizzed by escorted by security personnel. Thousands of delegates from all over the world flooded the Nairobi central business district. The last time the International Conference on Population and Development was held was 25 years ago in Cairo, and the majority of the Kenyan population was not yet born.

What was happening in the world in 1994? The Lion King, an animated musical film, was released by Walt Disney Pictures. The Notorious B.I.G. was still alive and producing music. Thousands were dying in a massacre in Rwanda. Nelson Mandela was elected president in the first inter-racial election in South Africa. And the world was grappling with the spread of HIV. The big topics discussed at the population conference in Cairo included maternal deaths and how to curb them; reducing HIV infection, gender-based violence, child marriages, and female genital mutilation; and how to give more women access to family planning.

Fast forward to today, to the conference that was held in Nairobi and was met with such opposition: From churches and conservative groups to our President and his deputy who, for the first time in a long time, agreed on something. They were both not pleased about some of the matters that were lined up for discussion during the meeting. Many people were concerned about the conversation on reproductive health and claims that the conveners were focusing on support for abortion, access to birth control for teenage girls, and the rights of the LGBTQI community.

There are a few things that can make humankind emotive and they include football, religion, and politics. From the first day of the conference activists threatened to march to the venue and halt the meeting. Thousands of people had signed a petition to support the protest. The meeting venue was heavily guarded and roads leading to the building were barricaded. The activist groups and some politicians denounced the conference, claiming it was only about abortion and homosexuality. They failed to mention the fact that there were several other matters slated for discussion; many that we are glad were deliberated on 25 years ago and whose results we see today. We have seen a decrease in HIV cases, more access to ARVs, more girls in school, fewer child marriages, better maternal care, and more cases of gender violence reported. We are not yet perfect, but were are making progress.


The hypocrisy in some of the churches that are leading such protests is glaring. A teenage mother is shunned in church and many single mothers of age are made to feel as though they do not have a family in their places of worship. There are matters concerning the family that should be discussed in church because after all, it takes a community to raise a family. These are the spaces where such matters should be discussed since religion is so important to us, but churches would rather it did not happen at all.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW