If the latest report from the Centre for the Study of Adolescence is to be believed, the first sexual experience for the average teenager is not only coming earlier, but also with greater dangers. Sexual debut is at an "all time high", with four of ten girls and five of ten boys aged between 15 and 19 having had sex.
This means despite efforts by Government and others to create awareness about HIV, Aids, STIs and other dangers that might encourage delaying sexual experimentation, young people are still risking their lives ‘doing it’.
What is most worrying is that moralising about these trends continues to be the favoured approach for some even though it has proved an ineffective strategy.
Adolescent fertility rates have always been very high: When the CSA was formed in 1988, the national rate was 142 births for every 1,000 teens, one of the highest in Africa.
This has since fallen to an estimated 116 births, still unacceptably high.
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"Studies show adolescents are usually sexually active, ignorant about contraception and do not use contraception," says CSA in a past study. "Teenagers are, thus, at high risk of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection."
With young people under 30 making up more than half of the nation’s population, this presents a danger to the country’s future.
The rising fertility rate among adolescents contributes to population growth. Teen births make up at least a third of total deliveries. They, however, account for more of the ‘problem’ deliveries, with a greater proportion of complications and deaths reported among younger mothers.
A good 80 per cent of complications from illegal abortions involve girls aged 15-19. And even where the children are carried to term, having a teen for a mother greatly increases the chances of childhood illness and death.
Sexual ignorance can be deadly. A study of pregnant women at Kenyatta once found the prevalence of STDs to be twice as high in 15-24-year-olds as in those 24 years old. The CSA survey released on Tuesday has the same finding. Surveys also show more than one in five of pregnant teens will go on to conceive again in adole-scence, raising the chances of an unfavourable outcome.
STDs and unwanted pregnancies will continue to be reported at high rates unless there are interventions to address ignorance on sexuality and contraception, and lack of access to the latter.
With youth ignorance on sexuality playing a key role in driving the rates of experimentation and disease, education is necessary. There has traditionally been opposition to sex education from religious groups convinced those introduced to the concept of safe sex are more likely to experiment than those taught abstinence.
It has turned out that the absence of sex education mainly increases the likelihood of unsafe sex, rather than of sex in general. The absence of opportunity and an awareness of the dangers play a great role in limiting sexual activity, number of partners and exposure to dangers.
We must, therefore, agree with CSA on the need for not just family life education for all teenagers, but also health services specifically geared to meet the needs of adolescents.
There is no denying that a lot of effort and thought has recently gone into developing laws and policies favourable to children. A reproductive health and development policy, and the Youth policy, as well as laws like the Children Act and the Sexual Offences Act all held address parts of this problem. But it is in implementation where these laws and policies fail. For various cultural and logistical reasons, the creation of laws is not enough to protect the young of this nation.
The solution is not stiffer laws or more pressure on law enforcement officers, even though such measures are useful. It is better to arm the youth with knowledge. Introducing comprehensive sexuality education in schools, early enough to have an impact, is the best way to go. There will be resistance to this from some quarters, just as there has been to use of condoms. But with the danger uninformed children are exposed to, not educating them is hypocritical and dangerous.