Wajir – Swaddled in colourful hijabs the women exchange puzzled looks and suppress embarrassed giggles. “You’re sure it’s halal?” asks one, peering at a collection of birth control pills, condoms and IUDs.
Such everyday forms of contraception are little known and rarely seen in Kenya’s arid and neglected northeast, an overwhelmingly poor, conservative and Muslim part of the country where most people are pastoralist ethnic Somalis.
A study of early marriage by the charity Save the Children found that just two percent of the population of Wajir county uses contraception — compared with a national Kenyan average of 58 per cent — due to modern contraceptive methods being seen as a breach of Islamic principles.
But Deka Ibrahim, a female Islamic teacher, explains that contraception is halal, permissible, as she talks to a group of 40 newly-weds and mothers sitting on the concrete floor of a dark room that is the village’s tiny maternity centre.
One woman feeds her child while others absentmindedly fidget with the long sleeves of their austere outfits, revealing intricately painted henna tattoos and fake diamond bracelets.
“The Muslim religion allows the use of these methods in certain circumstances, especially if the health of the baby and mother are at the heart of the thought process,” says Ibrahim.
She adds however that according to this interpretation of Islam there are conditions for using contraceptives: they must be temporary, spousal approval is required, and, she reminds them, abortion is illegal in Islam as well as in Kenyan law.
More than four in 10 women in northeast Kenya are married before their 18th birthday, their youth leading to increased problems in pregnancy, labour and birth.
Making the situation worse is that most deliveries are home births, unsanitary and without qualified midwives.
On top of that, the average woman has eight children, a large brood — like a herd of livestock — seen as a symbol of wealth in Somali culture.
“When an adolescent girl becomes pregnant or there is not enough space between pregnancies, the risk of complications is high,” says Sulekha Mohamed of Save the Children, adding that 98 percent of women in northeast Kenya are circumcised, heaping further risk on giving birth.
A 2014 demographic study showed perinatal deaths in Kenya’s northeast were more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Since then religious leaders have been co-opted into battling the statistics.
“Historically, in our culture, men take many wives and women have many children, so family planning is seen as a foreign idea, a colonial Western idea to limit the population,” says Mursal Abdiwahab, the khadi of Wajir in charge of the Muslim family court, who ruled that contraception is halal.
“Our role as religious leaders and learned people is to explain what Islam allows or not.”
The message seems to be getting through. In the first three months of this year, 3,177 women joined the family planning programme, a major increase from the 1,382 participants in the same period the year before.