• Kids are ill-prepared to deal with sexual feelings and attentions as they come of age
• Teenage pregnancies arise but underlying issues abound, yet decisive action is elusive
They are too young for sex, old enough to make or get pregnant and ignorant of the health risks. Yet nearly half of Kenyan teenagers, 47 per cent, are sexually active before they reach 18.
About 400,000 pregnancies a year come from this demographic. A mind-boggling figure worth narrowing down. To four scenarios, for instance. Same girl, different admirers.
Let’s call her Kadogo. At 15, she’s had a couple of years to make peace with menstruation. But now she’s grappling with sexual advances. She gets hot and bothered sometimes.
In primary school, Kadogo learnt little more than the ABCs of sex: abstain, be faithful, use a condom. Mama told her it’s “bad manners” but didn’t say what’s bad about it. Papa simply said he would chase her away if she came home pregnant.
So she ventures into high school with an air of naivety. Finds her feet in Form 1 under a ‘godmother’ in Form 3. Then spreads her wings, joining drama club.
Her school, Someni Girls’, hosts a ‘funkie’. The nearby Mjini Boys’ attends it. Baru, 17, ‘vibes’ Kadogo. Talks of things she’s ‘carried’, ways she’s ‘ripened’. She’s shy about her pimples but he makes her feel beautiful.
Baru walks her to the school bus. Gets touchy-feely in the back seat. Then hugs her goodbye. Later, Kadogo’s friends tease her about her ‘boyfriend’.
When are you going to do it? … You don’t know what you are missing… Tell him to pull out before he ‘pours’ and you’ll be fine…
Weeks later, Baru sneaks into Kadogo’s school during ‘enta’. He draws her to a hideaway and gives her her first kiss. And before she knows it, he’s pulling down her skirt.
If you love me, you will … Condom? Trust me … You can’t get pregnant the first time…
A term in boarding school is a long time for Kadogo. She has little pocket money. English teacher Molesi, 35, reaches out. Buys her snacks at tea time. Calls her for composition reviews in the staffroom that take longer than her classmates’.
He is very handsy in his greetings, making Kadogo blush. But he can only go so far in familiar gazes. On the way back from school games one day, he lures her to a bar and lodging.
Do you drink? … You are old enough now… Come, let me show you something…
Kadogo is sent home a number of times over school fees. Boda boda rider Marita, 28, steps in with free rides and cash. One day, he punctuates the trip with a break for ‘lunch’.
Life is about helping each other…
Covid-19 hits Kenya and schools are closed, giving Kadogo an early holiday. The 40-year-old father she rarely sees is suddenly home all the time. He’s lost his job and is drinking away his stress.
He and Mama used to get along just fine, but now they are always fighting. Then he starts looking at Kadogo like he’s never seen her before. One day, he comes bursting into her room…
Kadogo misses her periods. Starts feeling sick in the morning. Wears a sweater even when it’s hot. Soon, she can’t hide it any more. She has a ‘ball’.
What will I do?
Heavy is the burden placed on young shoulders who wind up here. Sometimes in more desperate circumstances, such as sex-for-pads, early marriage and sex tourism. And with adolescence beginning at 10 years, girls younger than Kadogo risk becoming mothers.
But pregnancy is only the tip of the iceberg. Many girls are abused before they are old enough to become pregnant, while boys never do when sodomised.
Other problems include sexually transmitted infections, with HIV-Aids a particular concern. Kenya has the joint third-largest HIV epidemic in the world, with 1.6 million people living with HIV. Some 15 per cent of new infections are among adolescents.
Question is, what to do about it?
I knew what I was doing was wrong; I just didn't make the right decision. When one knows the consequences and is given the right information, they make informed choicesSylvia Atieno
BAPTISM OF FIRE
Sylvia Atieno was 17 when she started dating a boy she met through friends where she lived. She was in Form 2 and him in 4 or just cleared, she didn’t probe. “It was a childish relationship,” she says with a laugh.
She hadn't spent much time with him before they had what seemed like harmless fun. “I was curious about having sex, so I tried it,” Atieno, now 25, says.
That experiment came back to haunt her. She was home during the December holiday when she realised she was pregnant. “I just knew.”
Her parents found out in January, when she was about to go back to school. “I was young and scared and felt like I'd disappointed them. Fortunately, as hurt as they were, they were and still are very supportive,” she says.
Deciding to keep her home, they helped her through the pregnancy until she delivered a baby boy while 18. It went smoothly but the whole experience was “such a hard blow” to her mental health.
After a whole year out of class, she left her parents babysitting and finished her studies at a school she was more comfortable with. The boy’s father is not in her life anymore. “He never engaged me."
Looking back, Atieno says early pregnancy has a lot to do with lack of education about sexuality — behaviours, desires and attitudes related to sex and intimacy. This leaves children “walking blindly” through adolescence.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong; I just didn't make the right decision. When one knows the consequences and is given the right information, they make informed choices,” she says.
With schools suspended until next year and eight in 10 students missing out on virtual learning, children are on a seemingly endless holiday. Despite the pandemic and social gathering restrictions, they are engaging in parties and sex. And teenage pregnancies are rising.
Leaders blame dirty lyrics and pornography. But from her experience, Atieno says that has nothing to do with it. “I just wanted to have sex, nobody influenced me in any way. These are personal choices and are from things we see our peers doing.”
Davies Ndolo, 27, grew up in a home where he was protected from sexual content. “By the time I was 13, I had no idea what sex is,” he says.
That changed in high school, where he was thrown in at the deep end. “All conversations started being about sex and drugs.”
Society has made everything sexual, Ndolo says, adding that it is all over social media and children are exposed to it. “I feel like we have stopped emphasising the need for waiting and now the conversation is ‘enjoy your youth’.”
Ask yourself, are you ready to have sex? Can you have sex safely to protect yourself and your partner from STIs and pregnancy? Can you respect the other person's decisions about not having sex?Reproductive health expert Jolly Mukangu
Reproductive health expert Jolly Mukangu says abstinence is a safeguard against STIs, emotional pain and unplanned early pregnancy, which puts both the girl and the baby at risk.
“Having sex with someone does not equate to love,” she says. “If you do, it should start from you. If you decide to wait, there is nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is having sex!”
For those who choose to jump on the sex bandwagon, she cautions that sex can change one’s life, relationships, self and social perception.
“Ask yourself, are you ready to have sex?” she says. “Can you have sex safely to protect yourself and your partner from STIs and pregnancy? Can you respect the other person's decisions about not having sex?
“Are you completely honest and trust the other person? Can you talk about difficult topics, such as feelings, other relationships, and if the person has STIs?”
Mukangu agrees that children would be wiser if given comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), a long-term course otherwise known as sex education. In Kenya, it has largely remained on paper, despite efforts to introduce it at 10 years or a compromise of 14.
Mukangu says CSE builds social skills to refuse unwanted sex or to negotiate safe sex when needed. It also improves knowledge and understanding, builds equitable norms and values and promotes self-reflection among adolescents.
In the absence of such enlightenment, many adolescents are playing with fire: shunning contraceptives for fear of side-effects, gambling with the withdrawal method and gobbling up emergency pills after unprotected sex.
When these fail, they resort to backstreet abortions to avoid facing their parents and dropping out of school, only to risk complications and death.
While interventions prioritise girls, Mukangu says boys should also be educated on responsible sexual behaviour. “It takes two to tango,” she says. “Boys should learn about effective contraception and also use protection — also known as dual protection.”
Moreover, boys should know they bear the legal brunt. The Sexual Offences Act criminalises ‘penetration’ of anyone below 18 (a minor), which it terms defilement. Convicted boys are sentenced to a borstal institution (juvenile prison).
While many parents do not sue in such cases, educating boys about age of consent could encourage restraint and spare them trouble with the law, which cares not if the pair had sex willingly.
Children below 18 bear the greatest burden as they comprise 70 per cent of these rape survivors, with five per cent being maleHealth CAS Mercy Mwangangi
DEALING WITH RAPE
Away from the seduction of ‘childish relationships’, teenage pregnancies also arise from rape, whereby no consent is sought. Since the start of the pandemic, close to 5,000 cases have been recorded across the board.
“Children below 18 years bear the greatest burden as they comprise 70 per cent of these survivors, with five per cent being male,” Health CAS Mercy Mwangangi told the press in July.
That they are being targeted despite school closures and the stay-at-home directive shows the perpetrators are often close relatives and acquaintances.
Sexual and gender-based violence tends to increase during emergencies and epidemics, Mukangu explains, and in this one, those vulnerable have been confined with their predators.
“When rape happens,” she says, “you should speak to a close adult you trust and seek medical help to get emergency contraception, STI screenings and PEP [antiretroviral medicine] to prevent against HIV.”
Children often fear going to the police. Thankfully, a list of toll-free hotlines for GBV cases has been published by the Ministry of Health, including one that is dedicated to children: 116. Those who call can expect to get counselling and accompaniment to a civic hospital and police services, Mukangu says.
The tragedy is that many children don’t know when boundaries have been crossed, don’t think it should be reported or simply don’t know what to do about it. They can be violated for years and be scarred for life, with some becoming suicidal.
“Teens need and have a right to sexuality education because they don't know about their bodies, puberty or even how to prevent themselves from reproductive health risks,” Mukangu says.
Critics, however, view CSE as giving children a licence to sex. They blame teenage pregnancies on moral decay and parental neglect, as Catholic Bishop Joseph Mbatia told the media in June.
“Strong family values and personal responsibility can go a long way towards eradicating or significantly reducing child sexual exploitation and the resultant pregnancy that scatter life’s goals of our dear children,” he said.
This school of thought finds many backers in a conservative society, including in Parliament, where efforts to legislate sex education are thwarted. Eventually, teenage pregnancy fades from the headlines, seemingly wished away until it rears its ugly head again.
But for Kadogo, it is a misfortune that lingers. She feels used. Anxious about her studies and acting dreams. Depressed by snide remarks. Such as, in a moment of need, “Who told you to get pregnant?”
Student life counsellor Tasha Amadi says it is normal to feel scared and stressed out when a life-changing experience such as this comes so unexpectedly.
“It doesn’t make it any easier when important people in your life are disappointed in you; you might even be disappointed in yourself,” she says.
“Regardless of what people say, you do not bear all the responsibility for this. It takes two to make a baby, so you can only own your part in it.”
This includes putting up with insensitive and downright stigmatising comments and actions from a society riddled with double standards, she says.
“Now more than ever, you need to put yourself and the life growing within you first,” Amadi says.
“Identify or build a support system to hold your hand through this process and reach out for help whenever you need it. No one should have to go through this alone.”