OPINION: Sex education the perfect pill to cure rampant teen pregnancies

By Serah Kamau

As learners troop back to school after a nine-month break thanks to the Covid-19 outbreak, hundreds of girls will remain at home because they are already heavily pregnant or have already become teenage mothers.

Most of these girls will drop out of school to take care of their children and handle other challenges that life has dealt them this early. Others may opt to stay away for fear of discrimination or rejection by peers, parents and teachers. Some are married while others have been married off. This premature transition into motherhood and early marriage may have serious impact on their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

A recent survey by the Kenya Health Information System found that about 4,000 girls aged 19 years and below were reported pregnant in Machakos county only between January and May.

Since the pandemic was reported in the country in early March, some 20,828 girls aged between 10 and 14 years have become mothers while the older ones aged between 15-19 years, 24,106 are either pregnant or are mothers already, according to a recent report by the National Council on Population and Development (NCPD).

Throughout history, the role of women in society cannot be gainsaid. It has ensured the stability, progress and long-term development of nations. Globally, women comprise 43 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force. Research has shown that when a girl drops out of school early, it limits her opportunities for future employment and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Poor parenting, peer pressure, idleness, lack of information about sexual and reproductive health and uncontrolled access to Internet has largely been blamed for the rising cases of teenage pregnancies. The society has failed its young girls, but there’s no point in crying over spilled milk. It’s time to right the wrongs starting right from the focal point of this mess, our homes, and support our teens to secure their future.

It is sad that most parents have abdicated the responsibility of guiding and counselling their children to teachers, house helps and the readily available yet dangerous Internet.

Slightly over a month ago, Kenyans woke up to the news that some 16 girls had run away from their homes to an unknown place. When the teens were found several days later, they claimed that they were just running away from boredom at home during these trying times of the pandemic. Holy Moses! A few days later police arrested some 44 teenagers in drinking spree at a Nairobi estate. These are just some of the cases that received publicity. There are many other such cases that go unreported. This begs the question: Where are the parents and guardians in the lives of their children?

All girls have a right to education regardless of their pregnancy, marital or motherhood status. In July, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed that pregnant schoolgirls be registered to receive ante-natal care and ensure they go back to schools when schools reopen. This is commendable and in line with Article 53 of the Constitution which provides that every child has a right to free and compulsory basic education.

However, implementation of laws and policies on this and many other issues concerning our children frequently falls short, and monitoring of adolescent mothers’ return to school is still in doubt.

In this regard, all head teachers must allow teen mothers back to school unconditionally. The girls need assurance from the government through a public directive that their right to education is guaranteed even when they are pregnant or have young children. To enforce Uhuru’s directive, the government should task schools and local administration with the role of following up with families to ensure teen mothers are protected and are allowed to return to school.

Furthermore, the government can provide special rooms for young mothers at school to breast-feed their children or give time off when babies are ill or to attend post-natal clinics. It can as well establish early childhood centres for the children close to schools when they attain school going age.
Schools and local administration should be tasked with following-up with families to make sure the girls are protected and encouraged to let them go back to school.

Against the background of the aforementioned realities that continue to keep our girls out of school, there is need for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education.

In 2013, the government committed to scale up sex education, beginning courses in primary schools. But efforts to actualize this promise have been met with fierce opposition from conservative and religious groups.

Currently, when sex education is taught at all, courses focus largely on HIV prevention and abstinence — which means students’ knowledge of reproductive and sexual health is often limited.

Our teens, both boys and girls, need education and awareness about their reproductive health and rights. Age-appropriate, accurate sex education can help children and adolescents with the information they need to make decisions about their own bodies. It can also empower them to speak up when they are in danger. The government and non-governmental organisations should join hands and conduct sexual and reproductive health campaigns on social media where most youths spend most of the time. Such awareness will be critical in informing decisions that the teens and young adults make about their future.

Last but not least, the law must not be lenient on sex pests responsible for impregnating the minors. Least so with parents who connive with perpetrators to sort the matter secretly while it’s the girls who bear the brunt of this mess. Most importantly, all teen moms should realise that their path to success still exists and the only way to achieve it, is to make the decision to go after it. It is possible.

The writer Serah Kamau is a gender advocate. Email:  serahnk@gmail.com