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September 22, 2018

End this war on teenage mothers

Mary Muthoni, a 18 year old Form 4 student at Akiba school in Kangemi with her 2 month old baby. Muthoni will be sitting for her KCSE examination starting next week and will have to balance between studies and parenthood.Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Mary Muthoni, a 18 year old Form 4 student at Akiba school in Kangemi with her 2 month old baby. Muthoni will be sitting for her KCSE examination starting next week and will have to balance between studies and parenthood.Photo/Monicah Mwangi

Naserian, not her real name, was pregnant at age 17. So she dropped out of the public school she was attending in Narok county, which at 40 per cent has the highest proportion of teenage mothers in Kenya.

In a fit of righteous rage, the teachers and her parents decided education was not her thing. Her father lamented over the tens of thousands he spent on her education. Today, Naserian is 19 and a mother of two. Her husband is a boda boda operator.

While teenage pregnancies are declining globally, they are still stubbornly high in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that births to mothers aged 15-19 account for more than half of all the births in our part of the world.

At 208 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19, Niger has the highest rate of child mothers on the continent. At 127 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 Uganda has the highest rate of teenage mothers in East Africa. Tanzania comes a close second at 123 and Kenya is at 96.

This high rate of teenage pregnancies – children having children – must be understood in the context of two demographic imperatives; Africa’s median age is only 19 and girls aged 15-19 comprise about 10 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion population.

Teenage pregnancy is therefore a major public health issue with major mental health, demographic, social and economic implications, and of an intergenerational nature.

There are no consequences for men, except in cases of rape or defilement. But teenage girls bear the heaviest penalty. Kenyan teachers deny child mothers re-admission. The myth is that teenage mothers will “cause” other girls to get pregnant. How preposterous!

While no policy prohibits girls from returning to school, pregnant girls are expelled and as child mothers they don’t return to school in Uganda. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli declared, “After getting pregnant you are done”. In January 2018, five pregnant pupils were arrested in Mtwara.

With little or no education for nearly 50 per cent of mothers, we are condemning future generations to a vicious cycle of diminished human capital, lower earnings, and intergenerational poverty. Evidence shows that a mother’s literacy has a strong influence on her children’s development of literacy skills.

Studies by TWAWEZA reveal that a mother’s literacy has a strong influence on early achievement in numeracy and literacy among children. Moreover, each additional year of female education reduces child mortality by 18 per 1,000. According to some estimates, a one per cent increase in the level of a girl’s education generates 0.3 per cent additional economic growth.

A girl’s education is not just about enhancing labour participation and increasing household income. The power of girls education extends to matters of life and death. East African Community member states must end this injustice against girls.

Education must be a birthright of every child. Governments and relevant stakeholders, especially teachers and parents, must put in place measures to curb teenage pregnancies while making re-entry into school both easy and compulsory.

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