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Not even Church is blameless over scourge of teen pregnancy

  Catholic bishops do not want sex education taught in schools under the CBC curriculum. [iStockphoto]

Kenya is facing a triple threat when it comes to adolescent girls, namely a rise in HIV infections, teenage pregnancies, and sexual and gender-based violence.

In fact, the threat is so severe that Kenya currently ranks third worldwide in teenage pregnancy rates. With this unfortunate data in mind, one would hope that the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders are taking active steps to tackle each threat and protect adolescent girls.

But the response has been both confusing and wanting: For one, Catholic bishops last year came together to demand that sex education not be taught in schools under the CBC curriculum. On the other hand, some stakeholders who are for the teaching of sex education emphasise that it should focus only on teaching abstinence.

All sectors of Kenyan society are responsible for the increase in child and teenage pregnancy, which is more often than not a consequence of sexual assault. The media, for instance, reported last year that flooding in Kisumu and rising water levels in Baringo had caused an increase in teenage pregnancy due to the closure of schools.

Similarly, in 2020 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic was blamed for an increase in teenage pregnancy. The passive way in which this crisis is reported would lead one to believe that flooding, school closures and a pandemic were responsible for making these girls pregnant, rather than digging deeper to analyse the cause and being brave enough to call out the perpetrators for the harm they are causing.

The responsibility for ending this scourge is also placed in the wrong hands. Whenever the crisis of teenage pregnancy is reported, parents, schools and the Church are encouraged to teach young girls about the virtue of abstaining from sex and upholding morality.

Not a single word is spoken of or to the perpetrators who, as studies have shown, tend to be older male relatives, family friends and acquaintances. Rather than placing the onus on men to uphold their own morality and keep their hands off of children and young girls, the onus is placed on the children themselves to resist immorality, and therefore pregnancy.

The stigma does not end here, which explains why Kenya is also witnessing an increase in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in young girls between the ages of 10 and 19. It is virtually impossible for these young girls, post-assault, to seek healthcare options such as post-exposure prophylaxis that will prevent transmission of HIV.

For Kenyan adolescents then, sex education could not come at a better time. Expecting adolescents to stay safe from violence whilst refusing to teach them about their bodies and consent is a fool’s errand. By refusing to expose young girls to sex education, we fail to arm them with the tools they would require to identify when they are at risk of being violated, what they can possibly do to prevent this violence, and the steps to take should it happen.

Placing the onus on young women and girls who are safest when schools are open also points to the threats that exist at home due to cultural practices, which these young women and girls have no say in. Reporting teenage pregnancy as an isolated incident obscures the fact that practices such as early marriage have been on the increase and are the reason behind the rise in pregnancies.

The Covid-19 pandemic and displacement that comes with flooding have been hardest on young women and girls as they are the easiest to commodify during times of hardship. Parents will more easily dispose of teenage daughters through marriage in order to cut costs and reduce the number of dependents that they have.

What the rise in teenage pregnancies and assault amongst Kenyan adolescents actually unearths is the lack of care and protection to children, and especially female children, by our society. It is up to the adults to realise that they are doing a disservice to adolescents by hiding the truth and pointing their fingers at the victims. Children ought not to be protected from knowledge, but from harmful cultural practices and predatory adults.

-Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate

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