Give adolescents contraceptives to address cases of teen pregnancies

Pregnant teens at a city estate. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

As the world population clocked eight billion recently, more than 3,500 delegates from across the globe gathered in Pattaya City, Thailand, for the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP).

The conference attended by key women's rights advocates from Kenya, including Nairobi Woman Representative Esther Passaris, provided a global stage for countries, organisations, and individuals to make important commitments, celebrate achievements, and interrogate barriers to the realisation of Reproductive Health goals, including access to contraception.

Access to preferred commodities is often complicated and hindered by religious beliefs and taboos and the rising opposition to contraceptives access for all, as a human right. This is despite the fact that the Narok Education Department revealed late last week that at least 741 school girls are pregnant in the county, with 248 sitting their national exams this year.

Women and girls, in all their diversities, deserve a chance to decide when to have children, the number of children, spacing and with whom to have children. While many women would like to use a form of contraceptive globally, the rising opposition and lack of awareness continue to hamper this access making women vulnerable to raising children they did not want in the first place.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it was estimated that 52 million never-married women were sexually active and in need of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy in 2012, yet only about half of the number were using modern contraceptive methods. Use of modern contraceptives to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and mortality due to unsafe abortion is low in many African countries among sexually active women. Access is even lower for adolescent girls and young women.

Multiple studies and projections have shown that by addressing the unmet need for modern contraception, unintended pregnancies would decline by two-thirds, from 80 million to 26 million; there would be 26 million fewer abortions (including 16 million fewer unsafe procedures); there would be 21 million fewer unplanned births; seven million fewer miscarriages would occur and pregnancy-related deaths would drop by 79,000. Most of this reduction (48,000) would take place in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest levels of both maternal mortality and unmet need for contraception, and there would be 1.1 million fewer infant deaths.

While Kenya is hailed as one of the African countries with increased investments in family planning and Universal Health Coverage over the years, our silence on addressing deaths due to unsafe abortions and access to contraceptives for adolescents is worrying.

During the ICFP conference in Thailand where Kenya was heavily represented, United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) policy advisor, acknowledged Kenya's increased funding to access family planning and commodities. But do these commodities reach adolescents as well? Is Kenyan society ready to start the conversation on accessing contraceptives by adolescent girls and boys?

Have we come to accept that teenagers are making uninformed sexual choices and suffering negative health outcomes or are we still burying our heads in the sand?

The government's laxity in addressing teenage pregnancies and unsafe abortion deaths is glaring. Women and girls essential reproductive healthcare services, including information on safe abortion and contraception.

In the recent past, Kenya has recorded the highest number of teenage pregnancies, with an average of 775 pregnancies a day. According to the Ministry of Health there were 45,725 pregnancies among 10 to 19 year old girls between January and February 2022. Kenya anks third in the world among countries with the highest teenage pregnancies. Half of the unintended, unwanted teenage pregnancies end up in unsafe abortions.

Kenya has ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol, which protects women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. At the national level, Kenya's laws and policies, such as the now-under-review Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy 2015, called for the realisation of comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents in addressing teenage pregnancies and reducing sexual debut for boys and girls.

Kenya is and continues to be congratulated globally for its commitment to realising universal health coverage for all persons and increasing the uptake of contraception. It is high time for the government to use its statistics and the situation of women and girls regarding reproductive health to address these ills that continue to hinder access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

The morality conversation and religion should not be at the forefront of the conversations on sexual reproductive health and rights for all persons. Women and girls and all people who can get pregnant should determine their reproductive futures. Therefore, the better conversation should focus on solutions such as curbing teenage pregnancies by ensuring adolescents have age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for them to make informed choices.

-Ms Kimani is a feminist, women's rights activist, a sexual and reproductive health and rights expert, a psychologist and the Founder of Zamara Foundation