We should do more to end teenage pregnancy

While the latest data on the prevalence of teenage pregnancies in the country may be disputed, there is no doubt that the number of pregnant teenagers continues to rise. What we see today is an alarming increase in girls bearing children after being abused, especially at home. Unfortunately, home has become a prison where they are trapped with predatory family members or neighbours. 

The most affected girls and young women live in marginalised communities where poverty, unemployment and limited access to education and opportunities are a daily reality.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the government to enforce stay-at-home measures and curfews, which had unintended negative effects on the lives and wellbeing of girls and young women.

These included increased difficulty in accessing information and services on sexual and reproductive health, increased risk and vulnerability to violence and abuse, as well as loss of livelihood particularly for those working in the informal sectors. 

Further insight into why teenage pregnancies are increasing shows that they happen as a result of sexual and gender-based violence, emanating from negative gender norms and perceptions on sexuality, harmful cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages, poverty, inequality and limited information on sexuality.

Another threat

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence strongly contributes to teenage pregnancies, with 7 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 19, indicating that they have experienced sexual violence. According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey, 2014, an estimated 47 per cent of girls and 57 per cent of boys have had sex before the age of 18. Lack of age-responsive sexuality education for boys and girls has also contributed to increasing cases of teenage pregnancy.

FGM is another threat to girls and young women that we cannot ignore. The Kenyan government continues to express grave concerns over the rise in FGM cases, which in most communities is a precursor to child marriages and hence teenage pregnancies.

Other drivers of teenage pregnancies and early marriages include poverty and inequality. Girls will often engage in transactional sex where they agree to have unprotected sex, mostly with older men in order to get money to support themselves or their families. Others are married off early by their families to reduce the economic ‘burden’ on households. Why should a girl’s life be looked at as a burden? Why should young women continue to be commodities with no control and ownership over their bodies or their futures?

It is no wonder many hardly reach their full potential professionally and personally. Early and unintended pregnancy and forced child marriages cast girls into a future of uncertainty and increased chances of maternal mortality. In most cases, girls and young women do not return to school, even after giving birth despite the return-to-school government policy. This also means that the missed educational opportunities directly affect their offspring.

Now more than ever, it is imperative for the government to adopt and implement pandemic-response measures that ensure that all girls can return to school and become the leaders of tomorrow. Schools play a critical role of actively engaging the learners and providing a safe environment and strong social networks and mentors for adolescent girls and young women.

Behaviour change

The ‘Let’s Act to End Teenage Pregnancy’ campaign launched by the government with support from Unesco, and Civil Society Organisations, including Plan International in March 2020, aims to address adolescent pregnancies through a multi-sectoral approach for social and behaviour change that brings together parents, educators, religious leaders, community gatekeepers, boys and girls. We urge the government to continue enforcing the Anti-FGM policy as well as increase budgets to end all forms of GBV and teenage pregnancy.

We continue to provide much-needed support to girls who are out of school so that they can access adequate and age-appropriate reproductive health information and services. Some of the immediate interventions include providing access to medical care, shelter and safehouses for GBV and FGM victims, and providing basic household supplies and dignity kits for girls across the country in a bid to reduce cases of transactional sex for the girls.

At the centre of all of this are the voices of adolescent girls and young women themselves. They are the ones bearing the greatest burden. If we continue to listen to these voices, we can obtain valuable solutions that can help the nation address this menace.

Ms Ndong-Jatta, Regional Director for Unesco. Ms Maina-Vorley, Country Director for Plan International Kenya