Mr Governor, pregnant girls have a right to education, don't deny that

Bungoma Governor Kenneth Lusaka.  [File, Standard]

Bungoma Governor Kenneth Lusaka’s proposal to ban pregnant teenagers from resuming studies is oversimplifying the issue of teenage pregnancies and presenting an impractical and unethical solution.

His proposal neglects the fundamental right to education, which is in reality the cornerstone of personal development and societal contribution. Punitive measures alone are ineffective in behaviour change.

On the flipside, life skills and health education programmes and robust support systems if, and only if, well implemented, have the potential to positively influence young individuals’ health decision-making.

When put in actual context, the proposal fails to underscore the concurrent strategies that are direly needed to address the root causes of teenage pregnancies, including but not limited to poor living standards, socioeconomic disadvantages, and limited access to health and empowerment.

Health and education indicators from Kakamega County - which neighbours Governor Lusaka’s Bungoma -  over the last few years are proof that indeed a more effective strategy that includes targeted interventions such as economic support, reproductive health education, and improved access to contraceptives are critical.

Through a project by the Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK) aimed at taming teen pregnancies in Kakamega County, the impact realised as at the end of 2023 has been nothing but heart-warming. Among the voices of teachers from some schools, RHNK engaged was the head teacher of Khayega Primary School, who highlighted that the school experienced an average three pregnancies annually. However, he observed a positive change in 2023 when, following the candid engagements with the girls on sexual and reproductive health, none sat their exams while pregnant.

The headteacher saw the positive impact that would be realised if various stakeholders up-scaled their collaboration with the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development to incorporate age-appropriate aspects of sexual and reproductive health into the learning curriculum. This, he said, would address key topics openly rather than turn a blind eye to adolescents’ need for reproductive health information.

The Kenya Health Information Survey for Kakamega County revealed a decline in teenage pregnancies, with the numbers decreasing from 12,843 in 2022 to 9,048 in 2023. In addition, the 2022-Kenya-DHS-Factsheet showed that demand for modern contraceptive methods in Bungoma County was highest in the western region.

Legal considerations arise, as the proposed ban could violate existing laws protecting adolescent girls in their diversities from discrimination based on pregnancy. The 2010 Constitution states in Article 27, sub-article 4 “The state shall not directly or indirectly discriminate any person on any grounds including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or bath.”

Further, Article 43 says: “Every child has the right to free and compulsory basic education. Additionally, section 7 of the Children’s Act (Act No. 8 of 2001, last amended to 2018) in accordance with article 28 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child and the right to non-discrimination (section 5) guarantees the right to free education.

If implemented, the proposed ban — that Lusaka has subsequently attempted to clarify —  has the potential to perpetuate social stigma and discrimination, reinforcing the notion that pregnancy is a source of shame and punishment.

National and international human rights instruments emphasise the right to education without discrimination, making the implementation of such a ban legally questionable.

Missed opportunities for support and rehabilitation are also highlighted, as pregnant teens require support, counselling, and rehabilitation, not punitive measures.

Governor Lusaka and other leaders should embrace the role of health and empowerment programmes in addressing the complexities of teenage pregnancies as this menace requires a more comprehensive and rights-based multi-sectoral approach.