Let's talk about sex: Teenage daughters and birth controls - Evewoman

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Let's talk about sex: Teenage daughters and birth controls

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Last Monday, while the world marked the International Day of the Girl Child, Stephanie Njeri, 16, was having a tiff with her parents.

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"There's a boy who likes me and I like him too but my mother doesn't understand," she says, choosing to confide in an uncle who she reckons can talk 'sense' into her mother. "We are not doing anything wrong. We just want to be allowed to spend time together."

From where she stands, Stephanie sees nothing wrong with being liked by a boy, hence her antipathy to her mother's counsel.

Her mother on the other hand probably feels that Stephanie is too young to be liked by a boy, or to like him in return. She has little faith in her daughter's ability to make such choices.

At Stephanie's age, it is difficult to deny the stirrings of teen lust. Hence the oft difficult subject of sex and contraception.

Assuming that Stephanie and other adolescents are engaging in sex, is it in order to introduce them to contraception? And at what age should parents consider placing their children on birth control?

In 2014, a bill sponsored by Nominated Senator Judith Sijeny, sought to provide children as young as ten years old with 'reproductive health services (RHS)'.

The bill didn't explicitly state 'contraception'. However, medics like Dr. John Ong'ech, a reproductive health specialist at Kenyatta National Hospital, say that RHS covers contraception.

It is an idea that Esther Kathini, a mother of two boys and a girl, abhors.

"As long as a child is still under my care they won't be allowed contraception. The fact is that he or she is still a child – who depends on me – and therefore is subject to my rules: no sex and no contraception."

"Was she [Sijeny] suggesting that 10-year-olds be allowed to engage in sex legally?" asks Edward Munene, a father of two daughters aged 12 and 16, and a pastor at the International Christian Centre (ICC) in Mombasa.

 He is amazed that the senator would suggest such a thing, no matter how good her intentions were. And despite rubbing parents the wrong way the senator genuinely meant well. Many have seen her point, given the fact that young people are having sex earlier and earlier.

Because many young people are not so innocent anymore, a school of thought has emerged that advocates arming the youth with the right reproductive health information, so that they can protect themselves against pregnancy as well as venereal diseases.

"Adolescents are having sex behind our backs," opines one middle-class Nairobi parent who requested anonymity, fearing that her daughter may become subject to vile comments among her peers.

"What they do when they are alone is only known when a pregnancy is developing – which some easily get rid of through backstreet abortions – or they've shown symptoms of a questionable disease. Why not be open about it and allow them use of contraception," she argues.

She may have a point: the youngest mother in Kenya, Gladys Chelagat, was 10 when she gave birth.

On a visit to the Kibra slum, we meet Aoko, a mother of six. "We take family planning for granted until our daughters come home with a protruding stomach. Then, as a parent, you panic at the realization that her life has changed forever. You ask yourself: 'Is this what I want for my daughter?'" she says.

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Aoko organized for her two daughters to be fitted with contraceptive implants in their upper arms when they were 15 and 17.

"I didn't want to take any chances. I already had many children in the house to feed. I was not going to have them bring home more children and crowd the little space we have now," she says.

However, Aoko is not proud of the measures she has resorted to. In fact, she admonishes parents in 'safer' environments to avoid going down the same path she has chosen.

 "I do this because in the slum nothing follows a natural trajectory. Everything that is taboo elsewhere happens here. It is not the safest place to be a girl," she says.

In discussing this topic, Edward asserts that the right question parents ought to ask themselves is this: When is the right time to talk about sex with your children?

He says: "It is through talking to your children about sex that at some point you will address contraception. Not so that they can have 'safe' sex but rather so that they understand why they cannot use them. It is only proper that if you are telling them what they can do; they also ought to know what they can't do and why."

In Edward's opinion the 'birds and bees' conversation should start as early as when a child starts showing curiosity towards the opposite gender.

"A boy may be three, but if as a parent you notice that he has questions about his appearance; why he looks different from a girl, that should be the first sign that you need to sit down and have a chat with him," he says.

"However, there is need to be careful with the amount and weight of information being dispensed: it should be age appropriate; easy for his mind to digest." As children grow, he says, you have to keep up with the sex education.

Before leaving high school to join college, Christine Njambi - Esther's daughter - served as a peer counsellor at her school.

According to Njambi, teenagers are prone to mistakes when parents are not honest with them, "about their growth; their feelings and all the confusing emotions they go through."

Even so she says, young people rarely take the initiative to ask questions about sex.

"We prefer talking to our teachers than talking to our parents. But it is still the duty of a parent to explain to their child, like a friend would, how to respond to sex-related dilemmas."

Sijeny's bill stalled. Nobody really understood what 'reproductive health services' entailed and whether contraception was a feasible option for adolescents.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Evewoman.co.ke

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