SEX EDUCATION: With the average percentage of teenage pregnancies in Kenya standing at 18 per cent, Kajiado County records a disturbingly high count fuelled by various factors
Girls have little say in decision-making processes within sexual relationships — for example when, where and with whom to engage in sexual activity
BY ZIPPORAH SAWAINA
Mary Nempiris (not her real name) from Kisamis in Kajiado West is a teenage mother. Aged 13, she got pregnant after a first-time sexual encounter with a bodaboda rider from her village. Being a day scholar, most of the time she walks for hours to reach school and back home; with the introduction of boda bodas into the transport sector, the riders have thus taken advantage of the vulnerable girls.
Data from the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) has revealed that Kajiado is among the counties that recorded the highest number of teenage pregnancies in the year 2021/2022. Indeed, the top three counties nationally were Homa Bay, Kajiado and Mandera, which recorded 1,522, 1,493 and 1,370 cases, respectively, involving adolescents aged between 10 and 14 years.
A similarly disturbing report by the United Nations Children’s Fund reveals that four out of 10 girls in upper primary or secondary schools are likely to get pregnant.
Indeed, with the average percentage of teenage pregnancies in Kenya standing at 18 per cent, Kajiado County records a disturbingly high count fuelled by various factors — among them the lack of sex education in the community and in schools.
Other factors include female genital mutilation, early marriages, stigma and discrimination against teenage pregnant girls. Girls from poor backgrounds are disproportionately affected, since all these factors mostly apply to them.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions that came with it — both economically and socially — has only served to exacerbate the worrying trend.
Jane Mwangi, a psychologist who works for Unheard Voices Africa, said the failure by parents to discuss sexual matters with their children is a major cause of teenage pregnancies in Kajiado County.
“This situation is worsened by the high poverty levels in the society, the birth of many children hence making mothers to spend most of their time working to provide for them, as well as absentees fathers who are preoccupied with alcohol abuse. All these factors lead to a failure to provide guidance to young people and this lack of proper parenting can be seen in the large number of teenage pregnancies” Ms Mwangi told the Kajiado Star.
Parents, she said, should pay attention to their adolescent girls and not leave the responsibility of sex education wholly to teachers in schools. “The role of teachers is mainly to teach; parents should not delegate their parental duties to teachers.”
The question of how important is sex education in schools has been raised in many forums and attracted support and condemnation in equal measure. Counsellors argue that it is important to introduce sex education in schools as long as it is done in an appropriate manner and at a specified age group. “This is because as children grow, they become curious and seek different avenues in search of information. Where sex education is introduced in schools by the right individuals — in this case teachers or counselors — the children won’t have to seek information from potentially harmful sources and especially the Internet,” said retired teacher Simon ole Kirgotty.
But many religious leaders have for years been opposed to sex education. “Only abstinence should be taught. We cannot have young children being taught about condoms and contraceptives. We know there are foreign interests that are hell-bent on polluting the morals of our children and will not allow this to happen,” said Pastor Joan Lekishon, who heads a small church in Imaroro Ward.
In response to rising cases of teenage pregnancy in the country, former president Uhuru Kenyatta in November 2019 proposed the formation of county-specific interventions. This led various education stakeholders to form county technical working groups to address the issue, but their findings and efforts are yet to be felt or made public.
The former president also called for a strengthening of social systems and strict penalties for the offenders in order to protect young girls.
Some stakeholders also point at peer pressure and influence from social media as contributing to the social decay that leads to teenage pregnancies. All are agreed, moreover, that teenagers need to be protected from harmful influences.
A spot check by the Kajiado Star revealed that girls have little say in decision-making processes within sexual relationships — for example when, where and with whom to engage in sexual activity. Participants reported that decision-making in sexual relationships was influenced by several factors such as the nature of the relationship, the ages of the partners, and the economic status of the partners, including whether there was an exchange of gifts, money or other favours. Where the girl and the boy are age mates and the relationship does not involve an exchange of money or gifts, the girl typically determines the nature of the sexual relationship. However, in instances where the girl receives gifts or favours from her male partner, the power dynamic shifts and decision-making capacity usually lies with the male partner; this is the case with boda boda riders, who contribute a lot to teenage pregnancies in Kajiado County.
County leaders and education stakeholders would therefore need to speak up publicly in favour of programmes that provide access to age-appropriate reproductive health information, counselling and services for all adolescents and youth — as well as quality sexual and reproductive health services and commodities.
According to Ms Mwangi, they should advocate for, support and put in place programmes that promote innovative county-specific interventions to curb teenage pregnancy. “The county health department should be supported to ensure adolescent and youth-friendly services are made available, accessible, acceptable, appropriate, equitable, and effective for all.”
All stakeholders should also work closely with law enforcement agencies to create awareness on legal standards concerning the age of marriage, consent, prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence, and access to social protection and sexual and reproductive health services. They should also work closely with the local administration and communities to address factors that predispose young girls to teenage pregnancies in Kajiado County.