St Thomas Aquinas Chesikaki Secondary School is grappling with an unprecedented crisis.
Located in Cheptais, a village at the foot of Mount Elgon, the school is a colonial-era institution with a rich history dating back to 1972.
Despite its historical successes in academic excellence, the school is now dealing with a situation that sheds light on the broader issue of escalating teenage pregnancies in Bungoma County -- 54 of its female students, out of a population of 500, are confirmed to be pregnant with hidden cases potentially pushing the number even higher.
The heartbreaking stories of the victims shed light on the devastating consequences of teenage pregnancies in a community where education has long been regarded as a beacon of hope.
When The Standard team visited the school last month before schools closed, we encountered two girls, each in their teens but already mothers. Seated beneath the umbrella shade of an acacia tree, they diligently flip through their books, preparing for exams.
Despite their youth, the distressing situations they face are evident in the depths of their eyes. After a lengthy chat, they finally open up.
"I am a Form Two student. It was my friends who introduced me to a man who became my boyfriend, providing all I wanted. I am 7 months pregnant. I didn't have parents who would take me back to school and attend to my child at the same time. I live with my grandparents," Chepkemoi (not her real name) said.
Sitting with Chepkemoi is Anna, a young mother who is also among 31 young mothers who were allowed back in school. Despite being grateful for the opportunity, she says that juggling parenting and schooling has not been easy.
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"I rely on casual work to support my child because I am being raised by a single mother who is also jobless, so I have to get money to support her and my child," Anna said.
Boiyo Paul, the Principal of the school, is calling for urgent intervention from the Bungoma County Government to address the root causes of teenage pregnancies.
"During my routine check of school services and student welfare, I noticed this sad state. The data I collected revealed 31 teen mothers who have successfully delivered, with an additional 20 girls expecting, spanning from Form One to Form Four, while three have dropped out of school. It is very disheartening," Boiyo said.
Boiyo attributes the upsurge in teenage pregnancies to poverty, the prevalence of drugs, and a regressive cultural environment, which has contributed significantly to the rise in teenage pregnancy cases in this school.
This, he says, has prevented girls from freely discussing issues related to puberty and menstruation with their parents, seeking wrong advice from their peers and the already eroding society.
"The lack of access to sanitary towels compounds the challenges, pushing some girls into the dire choice of early pregnancies," Boiyo said.
Ann and Chepkemoi’s stories underscore the urgent need for comprehensive support systems for young mothers, emphasising the importance of fostering an environment that allows them to pursue their education while balancing the responsibilities of motherhood.
The situation in Chesikaki is not isolated, as recent statistics from the Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2022 reveal that Bungoma County has a teenage pregnancy prevalence of 19 per cent, surpassing the national rate of 15 per cent. Vihiga County recorded 4.6 per cent, while Kisumu recorded 3.8 per cent of pregnancies among women aged 15 to 19 years.
Bungoma Deputy Governor, Jenepher Mbatiany, acknowledges the severity of the crisis.
"The county reported 7,270 teenage pregnancy cases between January and July 2023, with 196 cases involving teenagers between the ages of 10-14 years. This is data of those who visited health facilities and were documented; that means the number might be much higher, thinking of those in villages and some suffering in silence who are yet to come out. The numbers for 2022 and 2021 are equally alarming, signalling a red flag for the county," Mbatiany said.
Bungoma is not alone; Vihiga County is facing a harrowing crisis as cases of Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and teenage pregnancies continue to rise.
Boaz Aliona, a Clinical Officer at Vihiga Health Centre specialising in handling SGBV cases, expresses deep concern over the escalating incidents despite community sensitisation efforts.
"On average, the health facility records 10 cases of teenage pregnancies per month, resulting in approximately 100 pregnancies every year. We need urgency in addressing this issue at its roots, particularly within vulnerable age groups," Aliona said.
Cases of incest are particularly high in the sub-counties of Hamisi, Lwanda, and Emuhaya within Vihiga County, raising a red flag for the need for targeted interventions in these specific areas.
Beatrice Otuma, a human rights defender in Vihiga, confirms that cultural barriers have greatly contributed to the surge of teen defilement and pregnancies.
"In my community, cases of defilement and incest are rampant but are covered up by family members. Among the Banyore tribe, they believe that when you defile a relative, the victim cannot testify in court, as they believe it’s a curse. If she does so, she can't share food with any family member as she will die. Many of the victims are suffering in silence, and the teens affected are seen as a curse in the family," Beatrice Otuma said.
Euphresher Ageyo, a young human rights defender and activist, says the cases are deeply rooted in culture, and men should come out to confront it. Besides, she confirms that, as human rights defenders, they are threatened when following up the case for legal redress.
"The community is covering up cases by the use of kangaroo courts where the victims' families negotiate on a payoff with the perpetrators behind community elders. When we follow to take legal action, we are directly threatened. I have several cases in court where the perpetrator attacked me and told me to drop the case or my family will have it rough. Some cases have been dropped as victims are either threatened and never appear in court, or they are moved out of the village. To end this menace, it will only happen when men come out to fight for the rights of girls," Euphresher Ageyo said.
According to the latest Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2022 report. Disturbingly, intimate partners emerge as the most common perpetrators, accounting for 63 per cent of reported cases, while fathers stepfathers, brothers, and other relatives also contribute to 5.6 per cent of defilement cases.
Francis Kooli, the Bungoma County Police Commander, attributes the prevalence of teenage pregnancies in Bungoma County to the presence of alcohol dens surrounding schools. He has taken decisive action by ordering the closure of these dens.
"I have issued a stern warning, stating that the police will conduct a comprehensive sweep of the entire region to apprehend all culprits responsible for these heinous acts," Kooli said.