Saturday, 17 July 2010

Why Africa is stronger than the pro-choice agenda

In Kenya, discussions buzz in anticipation of the referendum for the new constitution to be held on 4 August. Whilst most agree a constitution is needed, religious groups have rallied for a “no” vote in response to the apparent unrestricting access to abortion guaranteed therein.

There is a sweeping undercurrent in Western thought that associates progress with individual autonomy, and it is this school of thought that sees access to abortion and contraception as solutions to Africa’s challenges. Anthony Giddens, for example, believes the family to be a product of social dependency, a crutch no longer necessary in areas of the world with high GDP and vast opportunities for social mobility. Economic empowerment will see the triumph of the individual over family and religion.

Writing from Nairobi, one of the most buzzing capitals of Africa, I have the impression that this pathway to individualism will not be tread here in quite the same way, if it is tread at all.

Access to contraception and abortion are heralded as two proud traditions the West has to offer the world as central to development and emancipation. Western NGOs and corporate bodies invest heavily in advocating their strengths for ensuring the eradication of poverty and female dependency. But few Africans want them. Abortion and contraception have shown little prospect for helping the fight against AIDs and poverty, and so the whole endeavour seems like a playback of colonialism: you will succeed if you do things our way. Restrict your numbers and follow our values, we will see your lives made prosperous.

Two words capture the position of the West: morally bankrupt.

There is something here in Africa that trumps the incessant individualism found in Western Europe and North America on a daily basis. It is not something that cannot be found in the West, just something that is stronger over here.

In Africa there is more friendship, more community. This does not excite many policy-makers who see problems as problems of the bureaucratic connection of state to citizen, but it does excite me. The trajectories of the Western “sexual revolution” are as much about the loss of friendship and community as the gain of individualism.

In the West it is frowned upon, for example, to suggest that the proliferation of abortion in the UK—over 6 million since 1967—is a crisis of fatherhood. Fathers in UK are encouraged not to give a damn about abortion. To give it significance amongst fathers would be to put pressure on the decision-making autonomy of the mother.

In Africa, fatherhood is deep with meaning. To be a father is something to be proud of; it is a sign of your place in the community and a sign of your dedication. Whilst in Africa fatherhood has spiritual significance, men in the West are assumed to have little spiritual capacity altogether. In the West men are, ironically, assumed to be hormone-driven hunter-gatherers. Deplorably, this view of manhood is being told back to Africans through the provision of condoms as the only way of stemming the spread of HIV.

On the question of poverty there is a strong case for arguing that too much population growth is unhealthy. But it is important for policy-makers to understand that a call for responsible family life must still recognise such a thing as family life to exist.

The question of abortion, for example, is actually a question of what children are and what motherhood is: are they gifts or burdens? If motherhood and children are burdens, the policies of the West will work. Widespread provision of abortion and contraception will render women autonomous and fatherhood irrelevant, and a reduction in births will result. But if motherhood and children are gifts, the policies of the West will meet difficulty. Rhetoric for the sexual revolution will clash with communities who feel their values to be under threat. Communities will turn defensive and reject Western policy as interventionist. Western commentators will turn to consider the essential backwardness of Africans. Sound familiar?

If the Western traditions of contraception and abortion are to have any head-way here, they must break up family, community and friendship first.