They do it right under their parents’ noses, often playing ‘innocent’ childhood games like ‘cha baba na cha mama’ Now guardians have to decide whether to put their young girls on contraceptives

This year, in the three days that the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination was held, more than 30 candidates became mothers. On day one of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations five girls sat for their papers from hospital beds after giving birth.

With every new headline about a candidate giving birth public uproar grew. Teenage pregnancy was fast morphing into an epidemic. Or was it?

Public reaction has so far suggested that this is a new phenomenon. Something like: “The kids are ‘doing it’, how is that possible?”

“Teenagers have been engaging in sex for decades. It is inaccurate to think that this began recently,” says Angela Nguku. Angela, the executive director of White Ribbon Alliance (WRA), a non-profit whose work revolves around women and reproductive health, understands teenage pregnancy like the back of her hand.

“Society has buried its head in the sand and convinced itself that teenagers aren’t having sex. Yet for many young people it is life as usual,” she says. Indeed, for some young people sex is the guilty pleasure that has become the norm. Leah*, now 19, first had sex at age 11. She is among quite a few Kenyans who credit their first sexual experience on the infamous ‘cha mama, cha baba’ childhood games.

“I was going through puberty and we mingled freely playing childish games. There were tense moments we’d experiment sex with boys out of curiosity,” she says.

One experiment led to the next and before she knew it Leah was in too deep. “I couldn’t stop; I couldn’t say no to boys who approached me,” she says.

All the while her staunch Christian mother barely asked questions. Her father, she says, was too busy ‘with work’ to detect anything.

“I even had this sick fascination of just staring at him knowing that he was clueless about what was happening right before him,” Leah confesses.

“Puberty for me arrived with confusion, curiosity and mystical pleasure. I am not sure if I could have gone through it in any other way,” she says.

That mystical pleasure landed her in trouble in form two: she fell pregnant with a boy she had been seeing.

“All had been well until that moment,” she says. “Carrying the pregnancy to term would have outed her.”

Leah had grown to believe that sex was to be done and addressed in secrecy. “I discovered sex on my own: no one told me what it was and how it was done. I realised sex is not a topic to broach publicly,” she says.

Leah kept quiet; utilising every opportunity a boy asked her out. But then she realised it was going to be herculean to keep the pregnancy secret for long. Leah did what some classmates recommended: abortion. “I did it at a clinic not far from home,” she says.

The ‘doctor’ used crude instruments and she is lucky she didn’t die. It was a horrible experience. “... but it was worthwhile because I was not prepared to be a mother and I did not want people to know that I was having sex,” Leah claims.

Her mother, however, discovered when word went around the estate. Distraught, her mother confronted her.

“I couldn’t deny it because she could have easily asked me to undress and she would have gotten the evidence as I was still healing,” she says.

And then her mother did something Leah never imagined her doing: She took her to a gynaecologist to receive Depo-Provera injections- a form of contraception.

“It was the first time my mother and I were both aware of my body and my sexuality,” Leah says.

In Kariobangi, Nairobi, where Leah has lived for the better part of her life, it is not entirely unheard of that a mother seeks contraception for a daughter.

“This is a hardship area: families here are struggling through life. Parents would want to avoid the (addition) of an extra mouth to deal with.”

Leah tells The Standard that many of her age mates are on contraception. Susan, 17, is now a mother of one. She had to drop out of school to be a mother and now whiles away days nursing her daughter.

Susan cites peer pressure and the taboo tag on sex by society as the main reasons why teenage pregnancy will continue picking new statistics.

“The first time I discovered sex I was 13. I had been friends with some two girls who told me it was sweet and I needed to try out,” Susan says.

Her first few trials, she says, wasn’t as enjoyable, “though some level of gratification was achieved.”

The problem was that Susan did not stop. “Sneaking and sleeping around sort of became part of my life,” she says. Susan is now using contraception. Her mother did not trust her to stop at baby number one. “She hauled me to a doctor who placed me on IUD contraception,” she says.

Susan adds: “It was part of an unwritten contract: I continue enjoying the roof over my head and in return I avoid bringing her shame and more mouths to feed.”

Professor Philomena Ndambuki, an educational child psychologist at Kenyatta University, says that as long as parents continue to treat sex as a taboo subject while allowing children to interact with sexual imagery unsupervised, we should brave for more teenage pregnancies.

“It is a problem that cannot be blamed on any one person but parents occupy a vantage position through which they can influence a lot that happens in their child’s life,” She explains.

In March this year WRA launched ‘Girls not mothers’ campaign; to educate everyone in society regarding what has been happening. “From what we have gathered so far this problem can only be solved when all stakeholders are called to account. Blaming the teenagers alone or parents alone won’t solve the problem,” Angela says.

Tabitha Mutheu, now 20, says being pregnant as a teenager is a pit she wouldn’t want her daughter to fall into.

Her own experience, at the age of 16, threw her off the kilter.

“Suddenly,” she says, “I found myself at the deep end of life: struggling to feed my daughter and having to drop out of school at form three when I was a year away from sitting for KCSE.”

Tabitha is still bitter about everything that transpired. She just doesn’t know who to blame.

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