By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women's rights groups on Wednesday called on Kenyan authorities to remove anti-abortion billboards across the capital saying they were inaccurate and fuelling stigma in the east African nation, where thousands die from backstreet abortions each year.
Sponsored by the Nairobi-based Sozo Church of God, 13 billboards and posters near traffic lights and on electricity poles along Nairobi's main roads state "Abortion is Murder!" or "Shut down abortion clinics!" under a picture of a foetus.
Another says "Your mother gave you a chance, it wasn't easy then too. Give your baby a chance!" with a picture of a foetus in cupped hands.
"The billboards fuel stigma and misinformation on abortion creating an environment that adversely affects reproductive health providers and women seeking these services," said Evelyne Opondo, Africa director for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Opondo's New York-headquartered advocacy group was one of more than 500 charities and activists that gave a petition to the Nairobi County Governor's office demanding the billboards be removed as they shame women who have a legal right to abortion.
Abortion is a hotly contested issue in Kenya and across Africa, where conservative religious beliefs hold sway. It is not permitted under Kenya's constitution unless a woman's life or health is in danger and emergency treatment is required.
Women and girls have the right to seek abortion services when they suffer a miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or rape, the petition said. But poor women often do not know this and cannot afford private facilities where abortions are easily available.
As a result, they have unsafe abortions - at home or in backstreet clinics, often inserting knitting needles into the cervix or drinking bleach - which account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, much higher than the global average.
Almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 - the most recent data available - with one in four resulting in complications such as fever, sepsis, shock or organ failure, according to health ministry data.
A senior pastor at the Sozo Church of God said the poster campaign was aimed at encouraging women to choose adoption over abortion, with a helpline where women and girls are counselled and provided shelter and support after the child is born.
"I have spoken to many women who have had a abortion. Every women struggled with guilt and shame and a lot of regret," said Apostle Catherine Oganga.
"Women do not want to have abortions. They are made by their men and parents and society to do it. No woman wants to kill her baby and that's why we went out to begin fighting abortion."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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