The Pandemic in a Pandemic
According to the Kenya Health Information System, about 4000 girls aged 19 years and below were reported pregnant in Machakos County between January and May, 2020. This means that about 27 girls conceived every day. The data shows that the numbers peaked in the month of March after schools were closed due to Covid19. That is just one county out of the 47 counties in Kenya. More disturbing is the fact that, more than 20,000 of the girls who conceived are aged 14 years and below. The capital of Nairobi was recorded to have 24,106 pregnant girls aged 15-19 while another 2,432 aged 14 and below. Following closely is Nakuru County with 17,019 and Meru with 15,353. Counties with the lowest number of teen pregnancy aged 15-19 were Wajir (2,684), Isiolo (2,851) and Nyeri (2508).
These recent numbers of teen pregnancies per county have left many shocked as to who exactly is responsible. Parents are on the receiving end of the backlash with most people saying parents have left the raising of their kids to the nannies and house-helps while others have argued that children have more time on their hands hence the need to “experiment”. According to the report, teenage are being fueled by rape, defilement, poverty, early marriages, peer influence, drug abuse and lack of youth friendly health services. The document concludes that “an estimated 26% of teenagers in poor households are likely to experience teenage pregnancies compared to 10% of teenagers in wealthier households.”
However, despite the explanations it is also important to note that the sexual consent age in Kenya is currently at eighteen, meaning any girl below that age who is pregnant was raped. Statutory rape is the act of having sexual intercourse with a minor. It is true children have more time on their hands with schools being closed due to Covid19, but let’s face it, these numbers have always been there. Maybe not as high, but they are there. According to the United Nations Population Fund Report, Kenya has recorded 378,397 adolescent and teenage pregnancies for girls aged 10-19 between July 2016 and June 2017, specifically, 28,932 girls aged 10-14 and 349,465 girls aged 15-19 became pregnant. While the recent data and numbers have caught our attention, this problem has always been there.
Education CS Magoha attributed those numbers to pornography and called for the ban of pornographic sites. While this may be true, wouldn’t it just mean cutting the branch? This statement is a bit of a contradiction from what he earlier said about children not having access to mobile phones and internet to allow online learning, and yet the same kids are now watching pornography? While this may partially explain the problem, it does not account for children in rural areas with no access to internet.
Even as we note parental negligence as a possible contributor to the spike in teenage pregnancies, we should also note that Covid19 has posed challenges to parenting. For example, as the economic situation worsens, it is getting harder to put a meal on the table requiring parents to focus on work. When we talk of negligence, we have to also take note of the fact that most parents consider sex talks a taboo and are hence unable to bring up the conversation with their children who then opt to experiment instead.
The introduction of sex education in the school curriculum has been contested by both the church and the government. Reasons stated have been that teaching children about sex would ultimately lead to kids wanting to have sex. But what this fails to capture is that the said children are already having sex. Irresponsibly at that. Putting them at more risks. When you think about it, we have failed to teach boys about consent and look at the number of rape cases we are handling. In the African culture, sex talk was a taboo. But the same culture allowed for early marriage and female genital mutilation. May be it is time we accept that this culture is outdated and begin to talk to our children about responsible sex. Teenagers have erratic hormones and sex that they cannot control. Sex education would teach children responsible sex as well as the consequences of irresponsible sex. If this can be taught in schools, it would be a way to start having the conversation and would even ensure that parents who are not able to talk to their children aren’t left out. Sex education would teach children that what is performed in pornography is acting and that is not how sex is supposed to happen. The church condemns incest and bestiality but doesn’t teach beyond that. Children are then left with what they can access in movies, books, or worse, what their peers tell them. So what is worse, having uninformed children experimenting or teaching the children to make informed knowledgeable decisions?
Plan International Country Director for Kate Maina-Vorley, said “Even before the crisis, girls and young women in Kenya faced considerable challenges in accessing essential health information and services. Now amid a pandemic that is straining even the strongest healthcare systems, there is real risk that sexual and reproductive health and rights will be deprioritized, with devastating consequences for girls and women.” She adds that as the government continues to curb the spread of Covid19, it is important to ensure that it does not limit access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, protection and psychological support services. The government should consider introduction of age-responsive positive sexuality education in online and distant learning packages and continue to sensitize and encourage communities to embrace sexual and reproductive health. Community sensitization should also include peer counsellors whom girls can speak to without fear of stigmatization or threats from their abusers. The government should also consider supporting families and households with no income so that girls are not vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in search of basic needs. Statutory rape should be treated as just that, rape. It should further be treated as so and perpetrators should be held accountable thus ensuring girls are not preyed upon.
As a teacher, I have had to have the conversation with some of my students on issues ranging from reproductive health to adolescence and puberty as well as careers and I would confidently say that, ignorance is a disease that will keep feeding in our society till we decide to weed it out. Education can be used to our advantage to teach sex education and reproductive health. Teenagers are more likely to open up to their teachers as opposed to their parents, this then provides the perfect opportunity for learning. In addition to this, stricter rules should be enforced on the offence of statutory rape and followed upon. In rural areas for example, the chiefs who know their villages well enough can work hand in hand with the police to hunt and arrest rapists who should further be prosecuted and punished.