The power of research for advancing reproductive and sexual health

2021 Respekt Conference. Credits @TinodaOrg

Greetings from Amnesty International, 60-year-old global movement of ten million rights defenders. We too are part of the bigger movement that believes increased sexuality education, effective contraception and safe abortion services will eliminate the deaths and despair caused by poor maternal health services, sexuality ignorance and unsafe abortions. We too, believe that pregnant women are best placed to make decisions about their pregnancy and states must support them with the full range of services they need.

How could statistics matter in a post-statistical global mindset?

1.Statistics have been around for over 500 years now. Fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta and European experts used them to capture basic population trends.  Opinion polling, the study of public perceptions, celebrates a century this year. Any modern state is incomplete without capacity to generate and interpret data.

2. While research tools have become more sophisticated (formulae and graphs has evolved to maps and infographics) we must face the growing popular perception that facts are untrustworthy, insulting even and unsexy.

3. Grounding our policies and politics in statistics occurs to many as elitist, undemocratic and insensitive to people’s specific experiences and perceptions. “Say their name” police brutality or gender-based violence campaigns come from a legitimate argument that in numbers, we are losing the human experience. Human interest anecdotes, opinions and even our prejudices seem more powerful than verified data. Many of us prefer our emotions over facts about abortion, LGBTIQ+ rights and teenage pregnancies.

4. We must ways of making research related and vivid, not just data but anecdotes and human interest stories also.

Information is political, it matters who is informing about what

1.Late Tanzanian President Magufuli openly declared he will only tolerate official government statistics in 2019. Anti-corruption blogger Charles Gichuki was arrested in August 2020 for the Anti-Corruption Tracker website while President Kenyatta was not in 2021, for sensationally claiming the country loses Sh2 billion daily.

2. Most statistics dominating political and policy debate are national in character. Controlling women’s fertility and the nuclear family has been central to most population data. We have suppressed the experiences of single parent households, polygamous relationships, cohabiting and gay couples with children for instance.

3. We have not powerfully captured the experiences of the marginalised, the stigmatised or those excluded by the majority or the powerful.

Research tends to isolate and breakdown. Human experience is always intersectional

4. Capitalism slices societies along several inequalities including class, gender, generational and geographical lines. Our experiences are not as neat. We always live in the intersections of our several identities. We must bring this complexity to how we describe people. Not just age, gender, class, ethnicity, profession, geography but all.

Not just information but narratives that urge us to act

5. To be powerful facts and experiences must be organized powerfully. For instance, Amnesty Kenya created urgency for the 2019 International conference on Population and Development by pointing out that while delegates debated, based on current statistical trends, 3,000 Kenyan girls between the age of 10 and 19 would have unprotected sex. 105 dropped out of school and three died in pregnancy related complications. A total of 3,600 women and girls had abortions. Nine people would be raped. 45 would be defiled and less than ten of these cases will lead to convictions.

6. Exaggeration is the lazy campaigners’ tool. It is important to ground ourselves in reality and the experiences of those most affected by the issues we are trying to understand

7. However, the urgency to act requires imagination to be truly powerful. What is happening? What could happen? What should happen? What is the possibility of this change moment? Increased public awareness is one step. An organized public demand for the enforcement of the Article 43 of Constitution, Health Act and Patient Charter is the other.

Thank for listening, acting and re-imagining research as tool for creating a world where all, and especially our teenagers, are dignified and safe.


Keynote Address by Irũngũ Houghton during the Reproductive and Sexual health Programme for Kenyan teenagers (RESPEKT) Conference in Eldoret, August 18th, 2021.