At about 9 am in Nkoilale village, Narok East, Lemontoi Purunkei joins his family from the grazing grasslands.
In between his two wives’ Manyattas, children play in the compound in isolated but serene Masaailand. It’s a simple life of a typical Maasai family setup.
Her second wife comes home with a 20-litre jerrican resting on her back, and shortly his daughter arrives from the water well.
The past three months have been troubling for 55-year-old Purunkei. His wife and his daughter are nursing three-year-old babies and it has not been an easy affair for him.
His teenage daughter Simaloi gave birth in August 2022 and he now has to bear the burden of providing for his granddaughter.
“My wife gave birth at the same time as my daughter. My only responsibility is to my wife’s child and not my daughter’s. But I am forced to provide for them all. I have 13 children and every week I use Sh10,000 on food and other expenses,” Purunkei explained seemingly bitterly.
Now, the Standard Five pupil is stuck in a dilemma resulting from her premature motherhood. Firstly, the father is not willing to feed her baby; instead, he demands the family of her daughter’s impregnator take responsibility.
“Every time I report the issue to the police, I get frustrated. That family said they have bribed the government and there is nowhere I can take them. They have refused to take responsibility and my daughter is willing to go back to school,” said Purunkei.
He claimed that in one instance, the family lied to the police that he had agreed to be paid Sh150,000 to end the matter.
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The situation is even more complicated because the boy is a teenager.
“We dated for about eight months but I didn’t know I would get pregnant. I want to go back to school so I can build a future for myself but my boyfriend’s family has refused to take care of the baby. I am in a dilemma,” said the teen mother.
She has to adjust to premature parenthood which no one prepared her for. With no idea of how to take care of a baby, Simaloi’s mother has been forced to step in so as to ensure the baby is well cared for.
“I don’t know how to calm my baby when she cries. I am entirely depending on my mother to help me nurse her. I don’t have enough clothes for her and all supplies have to be provided by my father,” she added.
“I want to go back to school and pursue my dream of being a teacher but besides my education, I’ll have added a burden to my parents once I resume studies,” said Simaloi.
Simaloi is among the adolescent mothers in Narok. The county has the highest number of teen pregnancies in the country.
Peer pressure, poverty, and sexual exploitation are identified as potential drivers of sexual vulnerability in the county.
Additionally, cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages have fueled the high prevalence of adolescent pregnancies in Narok.
The cost of education is prohibitive for most families in the Maasai community and the assurance of getting goats and cows as dowry in exchange for a teenage girl is a powerful incentive to plot for teen girls marriage as soon as she crosses the ‘childhood bridge.’
Unlike Purunkei who has decided that his daughter must resume studies, another family in Sankale in Narok North married off their teenage daughter after she got pregnant to escape the responsibility of raising the baby.
The girl got pregnant in 2019 when she was in Class Eight.
“I was so angry with her and I thought she could get another baby if I allowed her to stay home so I decided to marry her without any bride price in return. I just didn’t want her in my house,” said the father whose name has been withheld.
The girl was left with a husband and family she did not choose but she was lucky as police rescued her from the jaws of forced adolescent marriage and put her in a rescue centre with her one-year child.
The Form Two student is among the teenage mothers who have been rescued from forced early marriages and successfully reunited with their families.
She is among the champions identified by the Office of Children Services in Narok to discourage their fellow teens from early marriages, and teen-to-teen relationships and encourage them to report incidents of FGM, early forced marriage, and teen pregnancies.
The teen mother’s reintegration back into her family was formalised through a written agreement where the father committed to support the girl and allow her to continue with her education.
“I do hold meetings with young girls from the village during school holidays to teach them the consequences of early pregnancies. We want to be the ambassadors of girls’ rights in our community by reporting any incident where girls have been cut or teen girls being married off by their parents,” she added.
A 2021 report by the National Council for Population and Development shows that one in every four girls in Kenya aged between 10 and 19 is either pregnant or has given birth to a first child.
According to Narok County Commissioner Isaac Masinde, there were about 741 pregnant teen girls between 9-17 years in primary and secondary schools across the county by the end of November 2022.
Out of the total number, 332 are from primary schools and 409 are from secondary schools. Of the total 741 recorded pregnancies, 140 were Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) candidates and 108 were Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates.
However, Masinde noted that the figures have drastically gone down compared to the numbers recorded in 2020 (5000 girls) and 2021 (3,800 girls).
“The numbers shot up in 2020 during Covid-19 but we have reduced this year to about 26 per cent through strategic interventions. Our intention is to reduce the numbers to below 100 in 2023,” said Masinde.
Out of the 741 pregnancies, he said 100 cases are in Narok and Kilgoris courts and are still under investigation.
“We hold two public meetings with the communities per month to sensitise over the negative of the cultural practices which rob girls’ childhood and deny them the right to education,” said Masinde.
Maasai culture dictates that once a girl is 13 years, she has to undergo FGM and after that, she is readied for marriage.
The county commissioner expressed concerns over the possible migration of teenage girls crossing over to Tanzania to undergo the cut during the long school holidays. “We work with monitors across the county including teachers, Non-Governmental Organisations, chiefs, churches, and community members supportive of our course to help us monitor the girls during this long school holiday,” said the commissioner.
Further to the challenges in eliminating the harmful cultural practices in the Maasai community, the legal dimensions of a child’s age in regard to sexual offences have posed a major challenge in the fight and a number of the cases collapsed in court.
“We have a challenge when we’re following cases of school girls being impregnated but are above 18 years. The Children Act protects children below the age of 18 years. So many cases have been thrown out because of the age factor,” said Masinde.
He added; “In Maasai land, girls join school a bit late. So you’ll find a 21-year-old girl who is still in Form One. When she gets pregnant and we take it to court, the case is dismissed on age grounds. We lose morale because these are school-going children.”
Masinde suggested that the law should be amended to protect school girls who are victims of sexual exploitation regardless of their age.
“The law recognises 18 years as the age of consent and it is perceived that one can make decisions independently and that exposes girls in such a community that doesn’t respect the rights of women,” he added.
Collecting and safeguarding evidence of defilement has also proved to be a threat in prosecuting cases in court.
The commissioner noted that the girl’s parents collude with perpetrators or with the children to conceal evidence.
“It is very costly to rescue a child and follow up the case in court to the end. In the situation where the child is in danger or we risk losing evidence, we have to take the victim to a safe house and it’s very expensive to sustain them and educate them,” Masinde said.
Currently, there are 10 rescue centres and safe houses in Narok County which only accommodate teen mothers but not the babies born of adolescent girls.
The commissioner also faulted local politicians for frustrating the prosecution of the cases.
“The local leadership has not come out strongly to condemn the negative culture. Some will tell me to leave their electorates alone because that’s their culture,” he added.
Unlike the traditional trend of child marriages being the main driver for adolescent pregnancies in Masaailand, about 80 per cent of teen pregnancies recorded in Narok are child-to-child.
“In the case of adolescent parents, the boy and the girl are processed through police and the matter taken to the ODPP, and based on the circumstances given they advise on the way forward,” he said.
However, Narok county Children Officer Pilot Khaemba said the burden is usually not put on the boy, and because of motherly responsibilities like breastfeeding, the girl is the one who comes out as the parent.
“Such agreements still disadvantage the girl because the boy will not walk with the fatherhood label and if he is not properly counselled he is likely to impregnate another girl,” said Khaemba.
The children’s officer said the three outcomes in cases of a child-to-child sexual offence, the prosecutor may recommend counselling for the children, explore welfare services they may need like education, and also initiate a formal agreement by the boy’s parents committing to support the baby.
Khaemba attributed the high numbers of teen pregnancies to a deficit in knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and adolescent sexual behaviour.
“Most of these children do not know that engaging in sexual intercourse can get them pregnant. They think one can only get pregnant if they are married,” he added.
Further, he said statistics show that teen pregnancies, child marriages, and the availability of educational facilities in Narok are correlated.
“Schools are very few in some sub-counties like Narok West and Narok South and that gives grounds for parents not taking girls to school. A child who is not in school is not mapped and they are prone to what we are fighting because schools are safe spaces,” added Khaemba.
He added; It is common to find a 15-year-old girl and boy in such areas who have never been to school.
The rate of children out of school in the two sub-counties stands at 36 per cent, unlike other sub-counties where the rate stands at 19 per cent.
The children’s department in Narok introduced an initiative where girls who have witnessed or are victims of sexual offences and harmful practices are identified as champions to enlighten their peers.
Besides being robbed of childhood and denied the ability to pursue education, teen mothers are more likely to suffer complications during pregnancy, exposing the mother and the baby to further health risks that could be fatal during birth.
According to Dr Kireki Omanwa, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Fertility Specialist: “Women undergo emotional, hormonal, and physical changes during pregnancies and the burden is far heavier on the children who are prematurely pregnant. Some procure unsafe abortions which destroy their uterus.”
Some of the complications a pregnant child is exposed to include a perforated uterus, losing the womb, Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases caused by unsafe abortions, Fistula, and obstructed labour among others.
“Some lack enough nutrition due to poverty and the baby gets all the nutrition from the mother. This also affects the physical and intellectual growth and development of the baby,” said Dr Omanwa.
According to the Kenya Health Information System (KHIS), over 350,000 adolescent girls become pregnant every year translating to about 958 teen pregnancies per day.
Going forward, Omanwa who doubles as the president of Kenya Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society argued that policies on contraception and abortions should be reviewed to curb teen pregnancies.
“We need to come together as stakeholders because if we keep on hiding and running away from the problem we will not be helping the children,” he added.
The law prohibits the administration of contraceptives to children and the illegality is punishable by a jail term of up to 20 years.
The National Reproductive Health Policy 2020/30 does not allow any healthcare worker to administer contraceptives to minors without the consent of the parent or guardian.
“We are also of the view that contextualised comprehensive sexuality education should be made mandatory in the primary school curriculum,” Omanwa added.