Billboard Battles in Kenya
A Message Too Important to be Silenced
Catholics for Choice and Reproductive Health Services, a Kenyan group, knew that the Helms Amendment unduly restricts the reproductive health options of Kenyan women, particularly those who are victims of sexual assault. Both groups wanted this message front and center when President Obama visited the country in late July.
Neither foresaw how many obstacles would block this simple message from reaching an audience.
JULY 3: BILLBOARD GOES UP.
At first, all was well. The billboard—an eye-catching reminder about the rights of Kenyan women—went up on Chiromo Road in Nairobi in full compliance with local laws.
JULY 10: BILLBOARD TAKEN DOWN.
Government agents tore down the billboard following a presidential order, but that still didn’t tell the whole story.
Dr. John Nyamu, executive director of Reproductive Health Services, offered his explanation. “In Kenya, we don’t criticize the leader, especially if he’s the president,” he told Buzzfeed.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, remarked to Buzzfeed: “It is particularly shocking because the democratic tradition is if you’re an elected official, you should be capable of receiving constructive criticism.”
JULY 14: NEW BILLBOARD DESIGN SUBMITTED.
One in three Kenyan girls under the age of 18 has experienced sexual violence. These are the very women who could be helped by access safe abortions under a less restrictive interpretation of the Helms Amendment.
Kenyan advocates for women know this well. The same day, 15 Kenyan women’s rights organizations sent a letter to President Obama saying, “We are counting on you to take action to publicly correct the restrictive implementation of the Helms Amendment,” Buzzfeed reported.
Catholics for Choice submitted a new design for the billboard at the request of the ad company. But even this design was rejected.
JULY 20: THIRD DESIGN REJECTED.
Catholics for Choice, with tongue in cheek, tried to submit an even simpler design after the second rejection. We were informed on July 20 that no more ads would be considered.
“I think they got fed up,” O’Brien said, explaining that the government’s reaction was essentially: “We’re not talking to you until after the Obama visit.”
JULY 24: AD APPEARS IN THREE KENYAN NEWSPAPERS.
Never to be defeated, Catholics for Choice made sure Kenyans got the message about Helms. Catholics for Choice ran an ad featuring the billboard in three national newspapers: the East African Standard, the Daily Nation and The Nairobian.
“We acted in the best democratic tradition of raising issues in a constructive way in the hopes that President Obama would find the compassion to listen to the voices of Kenyan medical experts who are too aware of how the Helms Amendment can tie the hands of those of us working at the frontlines for women’s health and reproductive justice,” said Dr. Nyamu.
O’Brien summed up Obama’s failure to act on Helms: “For the past six and a half years, I have joined, time and time again, colleagues from all over the world in meetings with key officials in the Obama administration.” Still, he knows what needs to be done: “A very simple clarification on paper would bring about profound change, not just for women in Kenya, but for women around the world. We have a duty to speak truth to power—and that is the cornerstone of democratic society.”
Reproductive Health Services Kenya and Catholics for Choice will keep spreading the word about the damage the Helms Amendment does to women’s health and rights in Kenya and beyond. All it takes is the stroke of a president’s pen to stop the harm from Helms.