We must face the sad reality of pregnant teens

During a recent funeral in Kilifi, I could not help but notice that the average age of mothers with babies strapped on their backs was rather low.

One could easily conclude the young mothers in the gathering were carrying their younger siblings were it not for the occasional nagging of the babies demanding the attention of their mothers.

You could be forgiven for admiring the beauty of it all save for the certain knowledge that these young mothers most likely dropped out of school, had no reliable income and were probably unmarried and still dependent on their parents.

For those lucky to be married, the outcome was not rosy either. Most likely, they were hitched to teenage or young men who also dropped out of school and did not fully understand the import of having children without a life plan.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, some 378,400 girls in Kenya between the age of 10 and 19 became pregnant between July 2016 and June 2017. Ordinarily, this would result in a huge outcry since the official age of consent is 18 years.

Children having children

The fact that the statistic only comes to the fore during national examinations when many girls go into labour perhaps because of the stress associated with exams, is quite telling. It points to a society that has surrendered to the ignominy of children having children as a norm.

Perhaps more shocking is the number of children between the age of 10 and 14 years who became mothers in the July 2016 -June 2017 period. Some 28,932 girls became pregnant during that period.

This grim statistic should ordinarily translate to an equal number of defilement cases in courts. However, this is not the case.

Most cases of defilement go unreported or are settled out of court using traditional approaches.

This makes perpetrators get away with barely a slap on the wrist without any punitive or deterrent action. It is this lack of stern action that leads to ever increasing incidences of child-pregnancies.

Considering that 50 per cent of the population of Kenya is below the age of 19 years, we must take stern action to protect the rights of this very vulnerable segment of our population.

In the coastal counties, early pregnancies are the main cause of school dropouts among girls. This damning statistic is driven by another sad statistic: that an equally high number of boys drop out of school due to the allure of the motorcycle taxi business.

These teenage boys with money in their pockets have become a menace to their peers. They not only lure other boys out of school with the promise of easy money, but also seduce the girls left in school with a few goodies.

It is this aspect of the teen-preying-on-teen that has blinded many communities from the real tragedy that is child pregnancy. It’s widespread nature makes us despair. For the most part we have left it to chiefs and the national administration or sometimes the police to deal with it. There are no major government programmes aimed at managing teenage sexuality.

Whenever the government has raised a finger towards teenage sexuality, an army of moralists and the religious community has whipped up public anger towards any efforts to institutionalise the management of teenage sexuality.

Traditional approaches

It is evident that traditional approaches in the management of teenage sexuality are not working or have been overtaken by events. For one, in many communities the age of consent was traditionally much lower than 18 years hence the rather lukewarm reaction to the entire problem.

The choice of 18 years as the age of consent is informed by new knowledge that the physical and psychological development of a child peaks at that age. Also, it is safe to assume that by 18, a child will have had at least 12 years of schooling preparing her for the challenges of life.

We should develop initiatives to keep children in school for longer and develop interventions that reach across the spectrum to sensitize boys to be their sisters’ keepers.

Indeed, we must reach out to out-of-school teenagers as a target to develop them into the force of change required to reorient the behaviour of their younger siblings. Our vocational and skills training centres should be upgraded to include training on social skills and peer education.

Likewise, it is not too late for us to creatively include sex education in the school curriculum.If there are capable persons in the religious community who have been vetted and approved as competent to teach the subject, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

It is emerging that parents often lack the skills and know-how required to guide their children effectively.

The Education ministry and the Social Services Department should come up with a guide for parents on how to counsel their teenage children on sexuality.

We cannot leave the fate of our children to chance. Let us act now.

Dr Kingi is the Deputy Governor, Mombasa County