Gags *can* be sexy – just like chains and shackles can be, but this gag wasn’t. And just as chains and shackles are linked in African collective memory to the experience of unilateral exploitation and oppression, to a collective memory of slavery and centuries of bloodletting, so has former US president Bush’s “global gag rule” been linked to a nefarious agenda of bigotry, misogyny and myopia; an agenda that has in the meantime, since January 2001, killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of women and girls all over the world, and notably in Africa.
This restrictive rule – actually an administrative policy enacted via the legal form of “presidential executive order”, thus not having force of law, but binding all US administrative agencies and influencing many NGOs via the powerful instrument of granting or withholding funds – had decreed, to put it simplified, that no U.S. family planning assistance must be provided to any and all foreign NGOs that would also use funding from any other (!) source in any other projects of theirs:
to perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the woman’s life, rape or incest;
to provide counselling and referral for abortion; or
to lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country.
Like many of the “anti-choice” activism that in the dire and gritty reality of the Global South works out to nothing but a “pro-death” activism (“pro-life” = pro-death; Orwell, anybody?), this callous rule tried to force a cruel choice on foreign and transnational NGOs: if you want to accept U.S. assistance to provide essential health services for the poor and suffering, you must also accept curtailments and restrictions in other activity fields of yours, restrictions that may jeopardize the health and endanger the life of many female clients and patients – or you reject the gag policy, close your aching jaws, swallow not your pride, but with pride, and lose vital U.S. funds, contraceptive supplies and technical assistance.
Research has unanimously indicated that the gag rule had eroded family planning and reproductive health services in developing countries. There was of course no shred of any evidence that it would have reduced the incidence of abortion globally. On the contrary, it had impeded the very services that help women avoid unwanted pregnancy from the start, and thus actually – like bigotry in general – it had furthered and fomented illicit abortions (therefore mostly dangerous, quack abortions) instead of preventing them.
Given the bigotry and hypocrisy of much of African Christianity (no matter whether Evangelicals, Catholics, or Anglicans, with the notable and quaint exception of that once die-hard lay Anglican, now turned very liberal, pro-women, pro-choice and pro-queer, Sir Charles Njonjo), it is not much of a surprise that Bush’s gag rule could actually grow and take root in several countries, only insufficiently mitigated by an age-old continental talent for creative dissimulation and reality-based implementation strategies (adept coping tactics, formerly in colonial times known by somewhat less affectionate names….).
When we today in Kenya celebrate the new US president Barack Obama, we are gleefully aware that as one of his very first symbolic acts in his new office, he has faithfully kept his prior promise: he has immediately rescinded the global gag rule. This noble act is both symbolic and very real. Symbolic because it ends 8 years of misogyny and oppression, of femicide even; real because if can immediately translate into funds now available for most direly needed projects.
But when we applaud this step, let us not forget that it is only one step in a long stairwell. And let us proudly and gratefully remember the women and the men who walked before us and carried us; names like Zipporah Kittony, Grace Onyango, Rose Arunga Olende, Kathure Kebaara, Betty Murungi, Solomon Orero, Agnes Pareyio, Martha Karua; but also a too unknown colonial administrator, John Ainsworth, whom one should rightly call the very first feminist in Kenya, and who, as “chief native commissioner” and thus the institutional counterweight poised against noble settlerdom and kaburu mentality, argued for African women’s education, women’s self-determination, and women’s voting rights already in the 1920s when in many European countries their sisters were still legally subjected to male custody, and could not vote. And as we remember the achievements of yesterday, and celebrate the promises of tomorrow, let us continue to carry on today the legacy of freedom, which is but a heavy harness. The first person of colour ever to lead the USA, half African by descent, has now taken up “the white man’s burden”; and with the hard burden left by his predecessor, his presidency will very likely become “no tawdry rule of kings, but toil of serf and sweeper”. So we hope that he shall strive
“In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.”
This chore is larger than human, and hardly may it earn him lightly proferred laurel and easy, ungrudged praise; but it is not only his paternal homeland Kenya who now bids Obama to take up “the savage wars of peace –, fill full the mouth of Famine, and bid the sickness cease”.