OPINION: Why we must handle teen pregnancy as a gender justice issue

By Ngare Kariuki

It is a gross injustice that many girls will not report back to school because they got pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Yet the boys and men who made them pregnant will resume with their education as if nothing ever happened.

A mid-2020 report by the National Council on Population and Development (NCPD) revealed that since the pandemic hit, 20,828 girls aged between 10 and 14 years have become mothers while the older girls aged between 15-19 years, 24,106 are either pregnant or mothers already.

The fact that this report talks about girls becoming mothers but does not mention any boy or man becoming a father reveals the gender injustice inherent in the teen pregnancy crisis.

Teen pregnancy and the web of consequences it brings with it is an unacceptable and discriminate assault on women and their right to education, dignity and social belonging.

In the Bible we have a story of a group of men, mostly religious leaders, frog-marching a woman caught in the act of adultery. They take her to Jesus and demand that the full force of the law descend on her in the form of death by stoning.

Conspicuously missing from the crowd, and in their demands, is the man that the woman was apparently “caught in the act” with. No one even mentions him. He is not a factor in the story, not even a footnote. The irony is as stark as it is disturbing.

Yet this is what is happening today. The gender dynamics and biases of our society have ensured that only the girls have to live with the consequences of a pregnancy that was the product of two people having sex.

It is the girls who will have to postpone their education, endure a more complicated schooling set up, or entirely drop out of school.

It is the girl — not the boy or man — who will have to walk in shame from the moment the pregnancy begins to show to years after the baby is born.

It is the girl — not the boy or man — who will be told off, left out, stigmatized and otherwise reminded daily that she made a bad decision and deserves what is coming to her.

Yet a decision that was as much the girl’s as it was the boy’s ends up adversely affecting one sex, and consistently the same sex, while leaving the other unscathed.

In many cases involving minors, the girls did not (and legally could not) consent to the sexual act that led to the pregnancy. But this does not matter, because it is not the boy that gets pregnant.

The boy will walk in pride after his sexual conquest because society taught him that women’s bodies are challenges to overcome and trophies to win as a rite of passage.

In Kenya, adolescent girls made up 45% of severe abortion complication cases, many of which result in the death of girls. No boy or man has ever died from an abortion of a pregnancy that he caused.

A 2019 study conducted by Plan International found that 98% of pregnant girls were not in school, and 59% of the pregnancies among girls aged 15-19 years were unintended. The same study also found that more than half (54%) of sexually active adolescent girls in Kenya did not intend to get pregnant and have an unmet need for modern contraception.

Globally, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged between 15 and 19, according to the World Health Organization. So far, no boy or man has ever been reported dead from a pregnancy or childbirth.

Unless we start treating the teen pregnancy crisis as a gender justice issue, we will be caught up managing symptoms while never addressing the root causes of the disease.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a good place to start, with a curriculum that does not just teach girls to close their legs and avoid catching a disease, but one that also teaches the boys responsible sexuality.

Our education and other social systems also need a radical change from seeing pregnant girls as an inconvenience that has to be tolerated and accommodated.

We need to start seeing every unwanted and unplanned teen pregnancy as a gender issue that must be dealt with without privileging the perpetrator while victimizing the one whose only sin is having a different biology.

Mr Kariuki is the Communications Lead at the Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa (NAYA-Kenya)