Women's Health Issues in Kenya

Article excerpt

According to an article published in Africa Confidential in May 1996, the United Nations Development Fund claims that women do about 65 per cent of the work in agriculture, the main economic activity in Kenya. Women are more likely to vote (by 20-30 per cent) and are the main canvassers at polling time. Yet there are only five elected MPs in a parliament of 200. Women seeking passports must still get their husbands' or guardians' signature. This discrimination is largely the result of a patriarchal stress in Kenya's population groups. Whilst contributing to the country's development to a greater extent than their male counterparts, women face discrimination in the social, political and economic setting.

During a speech to the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Nairobi in March 1991, Mrs. Kitty Hempstone, wife of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, aptly remarked, 'from sea to lake, Kenya is alive with training and development. I have visited many of these projects as we travel and have been impressed with the energy, the determination and the skill of the women participating. Because most of these projects involve rural women with little formal education, I find their accomplishments truly remarkable. What I do not see...are women represented on district development committees. Neither do I see them on marketing boards or cooperative committees despite the fact that women are the base of our agricultural economy. I see a country of tremendous potential under-utilising its greatest asset - its women.' Her observations highlighted the significance of women being underrepresented in all activities which form the backbone of the Kenyan economy. The ironies go deep as one tries to find an explanation for the problems associated with women in Kenya.

As in other developing countries, the health status of women in Kenya is unacceptably low. Widespread mortality and morbidity among women from causes all of which have one thing in common - they are largely avoidable. Since women form slightly over 50 per cent of Kenya's total population, of almost 30 million people, it makes demographic sense to address the needs of their share of the population.

In Kenya, the most important health problems associated with women are high mortality and morbidity associated with pregnancy, childbirth and puerperium (fever following childbirth and caused by uterine infection). More recently, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS pose increasing problems. Evidence is now being accumulated that the incidence and prevalence of AIDS is now higher in women than men. The high prevalence of AIDS is of great concern as those mostly affected are the young and economically productive sector of the population. AIDS is not simply a medical problem, but a social and economic one. People suffering from AIDS/HIV require long-term intensive care, occupying a sizeable number of available hospital beds. With an overstrained health care budget, the Kenyan government has several difficulties trying to meet the extra expenses of the AIDS epidemic. Kenya spends about 2.7 per cent of its GDP on health, well below other less developed countries. The argument has been that, because Kenya is poor, it cannot finance health and education. However, as the health of workers is essential to the economy, health spending is totally necessary.

Already the threat posed by AIDS to Kenya's economy is grave. In the relatively short period of its existence (the first case of AIDS in a Kenyan who had not travelled out of the country was reported in 1984) the disease has claimed the lives of thousands of people mainly in the prime of their productivity. A leading World Health Organisation representative in Kenya, Dr. Paul Chuke, claims that AIDS is the greatest killer of professionals in Kenya. According to the Nairobi Standard Newspaper (9 January 1996) reports from private hospitals where patients go for treatment reveal that AIDS is the leading ailment. …