Stemming teenage pregnancy calls for collaborative efforts

Teenage pregnancy remains a global social and medical problem. A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report on Kenya found 378,397 adolescent and teenage pregnancies for girls aged 10-19 between July 2016 and June 2017.

Narok, where 40 per cent of teenage girls became pregnant, had the highest number of cases. Others were Homa Bay (33 per cent), West Pokot (29 per cent), Tana River (28 per cent), Nyamira (28 per cent), Samburu (26 per cent) and Migori and Kwale both at 24 per cent.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014), one in every five girls aged between 15 and 19 is either pregnant or already a mother. In addition, over 13,000 teenage girls drop out of school annually due to pregnancy.

The Global Childhood Report 2019 shows that Kenya has the third highest teen pregnancy rates with 82 births per 1,000 births. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation with school closures and lockdowns that exposed young girls to more risks.

While this surge has been blamed on gender inequality, poverty remains the major cause as some young girls are forced to engage in commercial sex work to fend for themselves and their families. Traditional harmful practices such as early marriages also expose teens to sex leading to pregnancy. Some parents have also failed to give guidance on sexual and reproductive health matters to their children who are left to find out for themselves either from friends or the Internet.

The consequences of teenage pregnancy are devastating. For one, teenage pregnancy remains a social problem as teenage mothers have higher risks of living on lower incomes, lower educational achievements and difficulties with housing compared to their peers.

Teenage mothers are also more likely to be socially isolated. Medically, girls who become pregnant as teenagers face increased medical risks, and if the pregnancy is taken to term, there are also increased medical risks for their babies.

According to WHO, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally. A 2017 study into maternal deaths by Kenya’s Ministry of Health buttresses this postulate. The Confidential Enquiry into maternal deaths in Kenya study revealed that nine per cent of women who died in hospital were teenagers.

Teen mothers also face significant levels of stress that can then lead to increased mental health concerns. Besides higher rates of postpartum depression, teenage mothers also have higher rates of suicidal tendencies than their peers who aren't mothers.

Despite the surging cases of teenage pregnancy, government and civil society organisations must be commended for their efforts to stem the tide. For instance, Plan International Kenya, in its Five-Year Country Strategic Plan, has lined up a raft of measures to help young girls make informed choices about sexuality and relationships, and if and when to have children. This will be made possible through a sharper focus and more funding. Other measures include eliminating harmful practices like child marriage.

The government enacted the Sexual Offences Act, which provides that a person found guilty of defiling a minor aged between 12 and 15 be jailed for not less than 20 years while whoever has sex with minors between 16 and 18 years gets a minimum of 15 years.

On March 3, 2020, the government launched a national campaign against teenage pregnancies through the National Council for Population and Development, seeking an end to teen pregnancy. The campaign is geared towards galvanising communities on the need to end teen pregnancies through awareness and advocacy, citing its negativity on socio-economic growth.

The government also launched Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy and adolescent youth-friendly facilities to bring issues of adolescent and youths’ health and development into the mainstream.

While these efforts are laudable, a lot more still needs to be done to either end or substantially reduce teenage pregnancies. Key among these should be poverty alleviation through economic empowerment of young girls and adolescents. It is also time to expand the teenage pregnancy discussion by involving boys and men as anti-teenage pregnancy champions. The government should also create more awareness on the school re-entry policy for teen mums.

In summary, developing a community-based approach which utilises school sex education integrated with parent, church, and community groups; increasing teenage knowledge of contraception, and providing counselling and medical and psychological education and nutrition must be emphasised.

But above all, stiffer penalties for sexual offenders and stricter enforcement of the laws, as well as continued collaboration between government, communities and civil society organisations on the implementation of policies already in place, will go a long way in stemming the tide of teenage pregnancy.