Commentary Human Rights

What Does US Policy Have to Do With Child Brides and Drought in Kenya?

Jodi Jacobson

Years of misguided U.S. policy such as the Global Gag Rule have contributed to today's crisis in Kenya.

There’s a saying that if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. When it comes to news that Kenyan families, facing serious drought conditions and unable to feed their families, are now selling their young daughters off to buy food, the United States is a part of the problem. 

A big part.


As we reported two weeks back, the GOP and Tea Party majorities in the United States House of Representative are hell-bent on re-imposing the Global Gag Rule on U.S. international family planning assistance in a back and forth on policy that rivals Wimbledon.  And, as we reported in December 2010, House Republicans banded together to kill the International Child Marriage Prevention Act for no apparent reason other than to be ornery and adhere to a baseless ideology. The act would have required the U.S. government to develop an integrated, strategic approach to combating child marriage by promoting the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of women and girls, using existing resources. As in revenue-neutral, one of the terms du-jour.

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To top all of this off, Republican Congressmen Chris Smith (NJ), Joe Pitts (PA), and Mike Pence (IN) succeeded during the Bush Administration in forbidding the integration of family planning information and supplies into HIV and AIDS programs, though unprotected sex is the leading cause of HIV transmission and of course the cause of unintended pregnancy. This of course undermined cost savings in addressing the related problems of HIV infection and unintended pregnancy and also denied HIV-positive women in particular the right to decide whether or not to have another child. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was particularly incensed at the idea these women would have such power and so lobbied very hard against integration.

These policies have had an enduring and damaging effect. During the Bush Administration, for example, the Global Gag Rule forced the closing of up to a dozen family planning clinics, including many in rural areas where women had no other options to receive birth control, well-woman care, pre-natal care, child immunizations, and childhood disease management services.  In 2004, on a trip to Kenya, I interviewed the male head of the Family Planning Association of Kenya who, in speaking about the loss of services to women in desperate need, was brought to tears of anger and frustration at the short-sightedness of the U.S. government. 

The U.S., therefore, exacerbated what is known as “unmet need” for family planning–the difference between the number of children women want and the number they have–and to the subsequent high number of unsafe abortions in Kenya.  Kenya faces a shortage of contraceptive supplies, in part because of the lower priority put on such health interventions by donors like the United States and in part because of pressure put on the government by the Catholic Church, U.S.-based fundamentalist groups, and anti-choice fundamentalists in the U.S. Congress.

Today, fully one quarter of married women ages 15 to 49 in Kenya want to space or limit births but have no access to family planning services.  The most recent data available show that in 2009, the United States spent $17.8 million on family planning services, as opposed to more than $530 million on HIV and AIDS.  (My point here is not to pit these two against each other–women are the majority of those infected by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa–but rather to underscore how little priority essential family planning services receive.)  As a result of the lack of access to family planning, women have more children than they want or can afford, and in desperation resort to illegal abortion. Unsafe abortion in Kenya is widespread.  According to a 2011 report by the Kenya Medical Association, the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-K), the Ministry of Health and International Projects Assistance Services (IPAS):

[A]bout 300,000 abortions are performed in the country each year, causing an estimated 20,000 women and girls to be hospitalised with related complications. This translates into a daily ‘abortion rate’ of about 800 procedures – and the death of 2,600 women every year.

Now, as Reuters reports today, there is a severe drought in Kenya, and poor families with too many mouths to feed are selling–literally selling–their daughters in exchange for money for food.

Child marriage is commonplace in parts of Kenya.  The belief that girls contribute little to family economic security combines with the belief that they must be married off early to preserve their virginity (and the family’s honor) leads to the marriage of girls as young as nine years of age to men much older than themselves.

Drought has affected around 10 million people in the Horn of Africa. And in Kenya, young girls are being sold for as little as 15,000 Kenyan shillings or $168.

“If [the prospective husband] is wealthy, it can go up to 50,000 ($559),” said Ahmed.

Hunger drives the exchange, notes the Reuters article. “Prolonged drought in northern Kenya has pushed many families, like widow [Fatuma] Ahmed and her seven children, toward the outskirts of towns where they are more likely to get food and water.”

“A mother will take a 14-year-old girl out of school and sell her to a man — even an old man — to get money to give the other children food,” said a local chief. “Some households have 10 children and feeding those children is really hard.”

Enrolment in his local primary school has dropped to 210 children from 350 since the drought started to bite last year.

“Over a hundred have been removed because of hunger,” he said.

According to the United Nations, only one in five girls in North Eastern Province attend school.

Aid agency World Vision is unable to trace 400 of the 3,060 children it sponsors in the district. Some have been sent to stay with better-off relatives who can feed them. Some are working as maids in people’s houses or in food kiosks.

But others are married off “just to make sure that the rest of the family does not die from lack of food,” said Jacob Alemu, World Vision’s local program manager.

These girls will perpetuate a vicious cycle of early marriage, early and frequent childbearing, and poverty. Unless something changes, their daughters will have little education, marry early and bear more children than they desire, and have few or no economic opportunities outside of marriage. Girls and women will continue to become infected with HIV at unacceptable rates and women will continue to die needlessly from complications of unsafe abortion and childbirth.

U.S. policy would not of course have directly prevented the drought nor would it have completely prevented the problems of child marriage or unintended pregnancies. These are economic, social, environmental and human rights problems the first responsibility for which lies with a Kenyan government riddled with corruption and neglectful of women’s rights among other things.

But the U.S. could have gone a long way toward being part of the solution.  Instead, years on end of the Global Gag Rule have further weakened basic family planning programs in Kenya (and elsewhere), a misguided policy that the GOP now seeks to reinstate. And the failure to pass the International Child Marriage Act represents untold missed opportunities to improve the status of women and girls and build a more secure, prosperous and healthy Kenya, in which women have choices about their lives and that of their families.

Given the political realities of our political system, in which a fanatical anti-woman right wing seeks to quash any policy or funding that supports women’s health or rights and refuses even to address child marriage, and the President and much of the D.C.-based global health elite remains relatively silent on these issue for fear of offending said fanatical anti-woman faction, the U.S. global leadership rating deserves to be downgraded along with our credit rating.

Commentary Abortion

The Largely Forgotten History of Abortion Billboard Advertising—and What Pro-Choice Advocates Can Learn From It

Cynthia Greenlee

Ideological warfare about abortion via advertising has a long track record, though it’s a past largely forgotten in history’s fog and the present’s relentless attacks on abortion rights. Today’s reproductive rights and justice advocates can’t afford to forget that past.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Across the United States, billboards are visible evidence of the contentious abortion debate. Enlarged images of fetuses, cherubic babies, distressed women, and Bible verses tower over highways and byways like anti-abortion sentinels overseeing America’s culture wars.

Notice I didn’t mention images that show happy, pro-choice women, for it’s a lopsided roadside debate.

Rarely do we see billboards promoting abortion rights or the broader ideals of reproductive justice; there are few examples like New Voices Cleveland’s recent sponsorship of these billboards that affirmed, in the wake of the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in the city, that reproductive justice includes the right to parent and protect children. Abortion opponents have effectively cornered the market on this advertising medium and, to paraphrase a hackneyed phrase from “American Idol” judges, have made the billboard their own.

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But the good news: The billboard is just a tool (like video is a tool)—and tools can be harnessed for any movement. In fact, past abortion-rights advocates used billboards to good effect—even before Roe v. Wade. Ideological warfare about abortion via advertising has a long track record, though it’s a past largely forgotten in history’s fog and the present’s relentless attacks on abortion rights. Today’s reproductive rights and justice advocates can’t afford to forget that past. They may need to “go back to the future” to resurrect this tool in an era where women face increasing restrictions on abortion, and providers face proposed laws that would curtail their ability to offer reproductive health care to women most in need.

So what is it that advocates need to remember or learn? For starters, many early billboards functioned as straightforward advertising for abortion—even when it wasn’t widely legal. This roadside sign popped up in McGrann, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and pointed people to neighboring New York state, which had legalized abortion in 1970.

Abortion Billboard

Similar billboards featuring phone numbers began sprouting like giant flowers on the American landscape. As this picture demonstrates, referral services—some nonprofit and some that operated as for-profit entities—also took to streetsides before Roe to tell women that they could find health care in the form of abortion and sterilization.

Billboard on Abortion

Distributing information about abortion through billboards or other advertisements was not without risk; those who did so could face arrest. In 1972, Charlottesville, Virginia, newspaper editor Jeffrey Bigelow was charged with running advertisements for a New-York based abortion referral service and convicted under a state law banning any public promotion of abortion services. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but took a back seat to the bigger challenges to abortion bans: the cases that would become Roe and Georgia’s Doe v. BoltonBigelow v. Virginia was eventually decided in 1975; Bigelow’s conviction was overturned because there could be no limits on the advertising of a service that had become legal.

At the same time, the young anti-abortion movement was also rolling out its own billboards, said historian Jennifer Donnally, a Hollins University visiting professor who researches abortion politics and the new right. From the early days when anti-abortion advocates were organizing against state-level abortion law reform, they have made billboards a key part of their messaging.

“Anti-abortion billboards began to appear on highways in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington [state] prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as part of statewide campaigns against abortion repeal efforts,” Donnally told Rewire.

Many of those billboards were tied to specific ballot measures or potential law changes. In 1970, when Washington state planned a referendum where voters could decide to allow abortion in some circumstances, opponents (and their billboards) came out in full force. “Kill Referendum 20, not me,” implored a billboard picturing a fake fetus cradled in an adult hand. Accused of using tasteless scare tactics, Voice of the Unborn (the group behind the billboards) replied through a representative, reported the New York Times in October of that year: “They show an exact medical school replica of a 4-month-old baby. If the billboards seem to be shocking, perhaps it’s the idea of abortion that’s shocking.” (The referendum passed with 56 percent of the vote, and allowed women and girls to have abortions if they requested them, with the consent of their husbands or guardians, and if the procedure was performed by a licensed physician.)

Donnally noted that anti-abortion billboards have taken different forms and served many purposes over time. They moved from makeshift messages in cornfields to slick public-relations creations, and they mobilized supporters in different ways according to the movement’s age and successes.

“The publicity billboards educated the public and recruited potential activists. Behind the scenes, efforts to place billboards trained anti-abortion activists in fundraising and media relations while also [making] activists feel effective when the movement was in its early stages, following setbacks or celebrating victories. Sometimes, billboard campaigns were sophisticated. Other times, a farmer in a rural area who had a hard time connecting to anti-abortion chapters concentrated in cities and towns took action into his or her own hands,” added Donnally. “They made a plywood anti-abortion sign and posted it on their land next to a heavily traveled highway.”

After the Bigelow ruling, anti-abortion advertising gained steam in the mid-1970s. A February 1976 Village Voice article called John C. Willke, then a practicing obstetrician and a future president of the National Right to Life Committee, the “visual aids guru of the pro-life movement.” Willke’s first visual aids were often slideshows that Willke and his wife presented in talks to high schoolers.

But, according to the article, Willke’s “newest project [was] the creation of the three billboard posters. The least offensive reads ‘Abortion: A woman’s right to choose.’” “Choose” was crossed out and replaced with “kill.” A second billboard depicted tiny feet and this text: “This baby won’t keep his mother awake at night … at least not yet.” Willke planned to erect a fetus billboard atop a building across from a Minnesota hospital that provided abortions, the article added.

Willke’s focus on the fetus and abortion’s supposedly negative and life-changing effects on the woman—now cornerstones of anti-abortion rhetoric—was an experimental and emergent strategy then. Emphasizing abortion as an emotional harm and women as its simultaneous victims and perpetrators, right-to-life groups were often explicit when telling their members how to best deploy billboards. An undated newsletter from the Jackson, Mississippi-based Christian Action Group provided hand-drawn illustrations of possible billboards, one showing “baby’s first visit to the doctor,” a menacing-looking physician holding a black sack and a frazzled woman hovering in the background. Also included was a sample billboard that showed a hand wielding a scalpel, labeled “a pro-choice pacifier.”

Christian Action Group


"Pro-Choice Pacifier"

The illustrations came with this advice on using billboards to the best advantage: “One form of ‘advocacy advertising,’ such as political advertising, is to convince people of the justification of your point of view. Another is to make people ashamed to be with your [opponents]. These billboards are the latter.” Cultivating and multiplying shame was a tactic. As abortion opponents’ philosophy went, Americans—even the most well-intentioned or those ignorant of the “real” story about abortion—needed to be confronted visually with their silent complicity.

When Roe came under significant legal challenge in the 1980s, billboards became even more overtly political. In 1988, the year before the U.S. Supreme Court decision Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that allowed states to restrict abortion, a Planned Parenthood billboard showed six male (and mostly anti-abortion) Supreme Court justices holding their own sign saying “Freedom of Choice,” but with Chief Justice William Rehnquist slamming his gavel on the word “of” and Justices Harry Blackmun and Clarence Thomas holding a replacement sign with the word “from.” Also in 1988, anti-abortion activists experimented with a new form of advertising by placing anti-abortion placards in Atlanta taxis during the Democratic National Convention there.

A year later, in 1989, Prolife Across America was up and running. It works as an anti-abortion billboard mill, cranking out design after design (as well as radio spots and other advertising).

Therein lies the difference: Billboards have been institutionalized in anti-abortion media strategy and organizations, but they seemed to fade from the strategic agendas of reproductive rights organizations. In 2014, the Prolife Across America/Prolife Minnesota tax return reported that its designs were emblazoned on more than 6,000 billboards, reaching Americans stuck in traffic or driving to work every day with its larger-than-life messages. The group often says those messages are hotlines for pregnant women, educational, and roadside ministry all wrapped into one. Other organizations provide templates or the actual printed vinyl panels that bear the messages and drape over the standard billboard frames for prices as cheap as $200 (not including the cost of billboard rental, which varies widely according to geography, company, and the estimated number of motorists and views at given locations).

As the billboard has become a consistent anti-abortion platform, the messages billboards have carried read like a conversation between abortion opponents and other social movements. Billboard makers have blatantly adapted the slogans of feminism and civil rights and even the images of Black political leaders such as Frederick Douglass or Barack Obama—and with varying degrees of deftness or tone-deafness.

By the 1990s, billboards in the Midwest had reworked a common feminist bumper sticker to read “Pro-life: The radical idea that fetuses are people.” Later, billboards took an explicitly racial turn. In 2011, billboards proclaiming “Black & Beautiful” alongside pictures of Black infants appeared in Oakland, California. Sponsored by the anti-abortion group Issues4Life, the billboards appropriated the language of the Black Panther movement, which had its most well-known and vocal chapter in the Bay Area city.

Images and messages on billboards that explicitly targeted Black communities—and paved the way for others aimed at Latinos and Asians—were not entirely new. As scholar Gillian Frank has pointed out, a 1972 Michigan referendum about changing that state’s abortion law pushed anti-abortion groups to begin developing brochures that pictured Black babies and compared abortion to slavery, now old-hat anti-abortion fare.

More than 20 years later, diverse groups protested the encroachment of racist billboards in their home communities. In Oakland in 2011, Strong Families and a coalition of multiracial groups joined forces to persuade CBS Outdoor to take down controversial signage—a campaign similar to one used a year before by the Atlanta-based SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective when billboards also owned by CBS and claiming that “black children are an endangered species” appeared in the Georgia capital. Earlier this year, the reproductive justice group SisterReach successfully pushed for the removal of anti-abortion billboards in Tennessee.

Yet the hand that giveth does taketh away. Contemporary groups fighting for abortion access find that many billboard and other advertising companies reserve the right to deny or take down controversial content. And those contractual stipulations mean that some companies will reject outright advertising that specifically references abortion or simply points women to services—for fear that the other side will cause a ruckus and demand its removal. Fears of the “A-word” have made it into the online world, with Google determining that abortion ads were “non-family-safe” content and categorizing them with adult advertising and entertainment.

Whatever the advertising format, it’s clear that this type of commercial and political speech isn’t going away. And few people know that better than Jasmine Burnett, New Voices Cleveland’s field organizer in the Midwest. In 2010, she led the campaign to take down a SoHo, New York, billboard that proclaimed the most dangerous place for a Black person was the womb, and this year, Burnett was a driving force behind the Cleveland billboard.

Cleveland Billboard

Burnett said that it’s not enough to mount defensive campaigns that respond to the propagandistic billboards that increasingly dot urban and mostly Black neighborhoods. What’s necessary is billboard activism that moves beyond reproductive rights’ preoccupation with abortion and, in keeping with a reproductive justice lens, addresses the racism that’s an American bedrock.

“Anti-abortion billboards are an affront and an attack. [In doing the billboards, New Voices Cleveland] wanted to provide other spaces for creative thought, affirmation, and liberation,” said Burnett. “We work for the full health and well-being of Black women and people. For us, full health means having a different image of ourselves, being able to control and discuss our reproduction, and thinking about how we navigate self-determination in the midst of white supremacy.

“There are not many [billboards or other advertising] that talk about Black people’s lives,” Burnett added. “And we wanted our billboards to say, ‘We support your decision and right to parent or not parent. And we care about your life.’”

Commentary Family

I Have Same-Sex Parents, and Everything Is Fine

Lizzie Fierro

By sharing my story, I hope I can make other families in similar situations feel represented.

Lizzie Fierro is a high schooler in Austin, Texas, and is one of Rewire’s youth voices.

I used to be self-conscious about the fact that I have three moms. I worried no one would understand my experience of having divorced biological parents, both recently remarried to beautiful women. I didn’t see my family reflected anywhere. Around every corner were religious institutions and politicians and media outlets condemning half of my family while praising the other. Nobody bothered to ask me about my experience growing up with three female role models—rather, they made assumptions about how I felt. In fact, I simply wanted to know that others had grown up with similar experiences.

By sharing this story, I hope I can make other families in similar situations feel represented.

As a child, I read stories about traditional nuclear families, the Holy Grail of juvenile literature: a man and a woman, deeply in love, with a son and daughter who adore and despise each other in equal measure. I watched films about blended families, like Cinderella: well-to-do father mourning his first wife, wicked stepmother marrying for wealth, two nasty stepsisters to boot. Mainstream media made room for single parents, too: frequently a deceased mother or father, à la Beauty and the Beast, occasionally, as in Gilmore Girls, the honest truth that parents aren’t always newlyweds, that pregnancy does not always precede happily ever after. There were orphans (Oliver Twist, Harry Potter) and runaways (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler)—children being raised by relatives and strangers alike. I saw plenty of family types, but none of them were like mine.

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And though it was rare, I did hear about families with same-sex parents—never from books and films, but my elementary school best friend had two moms and a hyphenated last name. When I was 12, the first family I babysat for had four adopted children and a pair of loving fathers.

I’m lucky to have the family I do. Not everyone recognizes it—I’ve certainly read my fair share of articles about the alleged horrors that having same-sex parents means for a child—but I truly am lucky. For me at least, more parents means more shoulders to cry on, more voices to phone, and more love to give and receive. Having triple the maternal presence that most children get instilled in me a deep appreciation for motherhood—I have three women in my life who managed to turn down the volume on all the expectations that come with that role, and instead focused on doing what is right for them.

Yet, doing what was right for them wasn’t always easy. When my parents decided to remarry, for example, my dad was able to legally marry in Texas, half an hour from home. My mom and her fiancée, by contrast, had to drive 22 hours to Minnesota last summer to get their marriage paperwork signed—and their marriage still isn’t official in the State of Texas.

That is just one example of how my family gave me a different social experience than many other children. Though I’d like to say I’ve always spoken unabashedly about my family, in truth throughout middle school my mom’s girlfriend was always her “roommate” or her “friend.” Looking back, I am ashamed that I ever let my own unfounded fears of being made fun of for my home life take precedence over my love for my family, but to a seventh-grader, the voice in the back of your head that sounds like your teasing classmates is much louder than any voice of your own. I don’t doubt that there will always be an inkling of that voice when I talk about my family to new people: How will they react? But I’m not in seventh grade anymore, and I’ve learned not to listen to it. My family may not be what some consider “normal,” but I’ve learned that it is normal under the real definition of family: looking out for each other. It doesn’t matter that my family doesn’t look like a “normal” family; we love each other just the same.

And now I can only think, “If this is how I feel when mentioning my parents, imagine how my mom must feel when mentioning her wife,” and I realize that, for all the fighting I’ve done on their battle lines, I’m not the one being most directly attacked. All I can do, then, is hope that I’m helping to advance the victories in some small part. When I hear about triumphs like the Supreme Court refusing to hear cases that seek to overturn rulings by lower courts that have found same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, I know that we are moving forward.

Increasing societal acceptance only reinforces my experience that most people, at least in Austin, don’t even care that I have same-sex parents. Despite my concerns in middle school, I’ve never actually encountered a homophobic reaction to my home life; nobody has voiced any disapproval, at least not to my face. I suspect that this experience would be different had I grown up outside this city, or perhaps had I been brave enough to mention my moms when I was younger, when children are blunter and more susceptible to repeating their parents’ opinions. As it stands in my daily life, much more often people are confused rather than disapproving when I talk about my family: Your mom is gay? Don’t you have a dad though?

Perhaps as same-sex marriage and parenting become more commonly perceived and more celebrated, and as children begin to watch films and read books that reflect the vast diversity of family units, the public can begin to more openly discuss the erasure of sexualities that encompass attraction to more than one gender and this erasure’s role in the typical family narrative.

In the future, I hope that other children will see their experiences growing up in unconventional families as something to be shared, rather than hidden, and their feelings about their experiences to be spoken about, rather than assumed.


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