Nanjala Mary* (not her real name) is a 17-year-old mother in Busia county.
Last year, she was a Standard Eight candidate when she realised she was pregnant. This was after a night out to a nearby disco matanga where her love affair with a boy who was in Form One, began.
She did not imagine what seemed to be innocent infatuation would make her a mother at such an early age.
The young man, who is a neighbour comes from a poor background and cannot take care of the baby and the mother.
Nanjala narrated her ordeal at the hands of her family. She told The Standard that her mother rejected her and asked her to get help from her teenage boyfriend. Nanjala’s elder sisters could not host her forcing the grandmother to take her in.
“I do not even have clothes to cover my child, no food to eat. My grandmother is so old and poor and is struggling to feed us. My uncles have also stopped supporting my grandmother, saying they cannot continue feeding my child and me, and now I have nowhere else to go,” she said.
She was forced to drop out of school to care for the baby that is now one month old.
“In my old age, I cannot take care of my great-grandchild for her to go back to school. Where will I get the money for her school fees if I cannot even afford to feed us,” Nanjala’s grandmother said.
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A few metres from Nanjala’s homestead is Bridgit Wafula*, a 14-year-old Standard Seven pupil who is four months pregnant.
The boy that is responsible for the pregnancy is a neighbour whom she used to study with before they started going out to disco matanga, alongside other girls. But soon after the night out, they planned a date and that is how Wafula got pregnant.
She was forced to drop out of school after facing ridicule from other students.
Her family lives in abject poverty, and the pregnancy has added to their troubles.
The mother said the pregnancy at such an early age has taken a toll on Wafula and the entire family.
The girl’s father was recently forced to stop doing menial jobs after sustaining a leg injury.
Wanjala’s mother who is now the sole provider for the family washes clothes for neighbours to put food on the table.
Joy Shammah, the Director of Footprints of Hope Programmes based in Nambale, Busia county, says poverty is the main contributing factor to teenage pregnancies.
“Some of the girls told us their mothers needed sugar or unga, tutafutie chakula (get us food). This is one way of encouraging the girls to sleep with men to get money for food and they end up getting pregnant trying to sort out poverty levels at home,” said Ms Shammah.
She ensures teen mothers from poor backgrounds get diapers, clothes and food.
The team also visits schools, public barazas and churches to raise awareness of teenage pregnancies. “Getting a meal is hard, so they go to disco matangas to get quick money. They will dance during the disco matangas with the hope that men will notice them and get interested in them,” Shammah said.
“Many are depressed due to the early pregnancies, with some opting for abortion, while others have either attempted or have committed suicide,” said Roselyn Wandaki, the Director of Fight Depression and Stress, an organisation that addresses mental health issues related to suicide, early marriage and teen pregnancy.
Ms Wandaki regretted that some girls fall prey to boda boda riders who exchange rides for sex, especially when they have to travel for many kilometres to get to school.
“If the parents cannot afford to give her that Sh50 for the ride, she will trade her own body to get to school,” she said.
Boniface Okumu, one of the boda boda operators leaders in Busia town, said they have been working with local leaders and reporting to the police cases of riders who take advantage of the girls.
“Some of the boda boda riders will argue that they did not rape the girls without understanding that having any sexual intimacy with a minor is illegal. We have been educating them and putting measures in place to stop this vice because we don’t want people to taint our name,” he said.
He said most girls fall into the hands of rogue men when they are released late from school.
Okumu maintained that protecting girls from early pregnancies should be a collective responsibility.
“Parents, teachers and the entire society should be involved because for example, if a parent allows the girls to attend the disco matangas, they won’t be coming there in uniform for us to know they are students,.
“The boda boda riders may confuse the girls for adult women and end up getting into relationships with them that lead to pregnancies,” he said.
“Anybody who engages in sexual behaviour with a child below the age of 18 is committing an offence and should be charged in court,” said Esther Wasige, the Director of Children Services in Busia county.
Ms Wasige noted that the county ranks among the top three in the country with the highest cases of teen pregnancy, at 21 per cent against the national rate of 18 per cent.
She said her office has been offering social support to teenage mothers and partnering with civil society and other organisations such as Unicef, World Vision, and the Centre for Study of Adolescents to champion child rights clubs in schools.
They have been instrumental in reproductive health among youths.
Wasige said although most defilement cases are not reported since the families have been settling them out of court, the children’s office has been working with the Judiciary, the office of the Public Prosecutor and the police to ensure the girls get justice.
“We cannot keep on blaming poverty and other factors for teen pregnancy because some of those factors may not change soon, but we have to find mitigation. That is why the children’s cases in our courts are being expedited to ensure they are completed for the children to continue with their lives. We encourage parents to make sure they report any of these cases for action,” she said.
Alarmed by the escalating cases of teen pregnancies, Busia county assembly is seeking to tame disco matangas which have been cited for fuelling illicit affairs.
Nominated MCA Mercy Wanyonyi is drafting a Bill seeking to limit the age of people who attend disco matangas.
“I am not saying disco matangas are bad because this is our culture and part of our tradition where we mourn and raise funds to support the bereaved family, but why can’t we come up with a policy to bar young girls from attending them?” She posed.
Ms Wanyonyi said just like in bars, girls under 18 years should not be allowed to attend disco matangas.
She regretted the immoral activities that go on during disco matangas.
The nominated MCA said only the children from the bereaved family should be allowed to attend disco matanga.
She cautioned that the family should take responsibility for the people that are allowed in their compound during the mourning period.
Wanyonyi called for the implementation of a social protection policy, to give girls a safe space during and after pregnancy.
“These girls should be taken back to school, or taken to TVET for short courses at the same time empowering the schools’ counselling department because there is a need for sex education,” she said.