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NATIONAL CONVERSATION

Confront and end teen pregnancies

Government’s attempts to shirk its responsibility troubling.

In Summary
  • It’s time we stopped referring to sexual assault of children as ‘defilement’, connoting, in other words, the victim’s loss of purity.
  • It is irresponsible and hurtful to blame parents and grandparents, many of whom are simply doing the best they can to survive the Covid disruption

The national conversation on the surge in teen pregnancies is disturbing, but not for the reasons you think. While the number of teenagers who fall pregnant is indeed troubling, it’s not as troubling as the government’s attempts to shirk its responsibility for doing something about it.

Government officials blame everyone, from inattentive grandparents to NGOs “pushing sex education”, that it is hard to believe they are genuinely committed to implementing evidenced-based, best practice solutions that will help the young people concerned.

It is true that Kenya has a high rate of teen pregnancy by global standards. We also know that teenage girls have more complications during pregnancy and are at a greater risk of dying during childbirth. And many teenage girls who fall pregnant do not go on to complete their education, which undermines their ability to thrive tin life. So, clearly, this problem requires our urgent attention.

That many teenage pregnancies occur as a result of sexual assault is undoubtedly true, but the way we describe this terrible crime matters. It’s time we stopped referring to this crime as ‘defilement’, connoting, in other words, victim’s loss of purity.

This language mirrors the Sexual Offences Act, which is offensive and inaccurate to that extent. This idea of purity reinforces stereotypes about women and adolescents’ dignity residing in their state as chaste, often making criminal trials about chastity and the victim’s sexual history, which in turn excuses the rapist’s conduct and revictimises those violated.

Further, where teenage pregnancies occur as a result of sexual assault, it is irresponsible and hurtful to blame the victims’ parents and grandparents, many of whom are simply doing the best they can to survive the coronavirus disruption. Again, rapists are responsible for rape, and no one else.

Instead of overwrought conversations about bogeymen and bad parenting, we need decisive and consistent action in the form of comprehensive and age-appropriate sexuality education, accessible sexual and reproductive health services throughout the country, a well-resourced criminal justice system that responds sensitively and swiftly to allegations of sexual assault, and schools that provide the support services pregnant girls need to complete their education.

The government is responsible for ensuring girls are safe, both in their homes and in the streets. What has the government done to investigate these alleged crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice? What has it done to provide support services to the survivors, many of whom are children?

In addition, no mention is being made of voluntary sexual encounters between young people of the same age. A 2014 survey conducted by the Population Council in Homa Bay county found that young boys were responsible for 37 percent of teenage pregnancies.

It follows that, as East and Southern African Education Ministers recognised in their 2013 Commitment on Comprehensive Sexuality Education, delivering comprehensive, life skills-based sexuality education to girls and boys from primary school is vital to achieving a reduction in teen pregnancy.

It is also not inevitable that pregnancy leads to poor outcomes for teenagers. Girls and women in Kenya have a constitutionally enshrined right to terminate a pregnancy where it is necessary to protect their health. The High Court has found that this includes where pregnancies occur as a result of sexual assault. But how many girls are made aware of this right and have meaningful access to the full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare, including prophylactic services for STIs and emergency contraception to avoid pregnancies after sexual assault?

The government has also repeatedly affirmed its commitment to ensuring schoolgirls who fall pregnant stay in school as long as possible while pregnant, and return to school after giving birth. But again, how many girls know this and are given the support they need to make it happen?

Instead of overwrought conversations about bogeymen and bad parenting, we need decisive and consistent action in the form of comprehensive and age-appropriate sexuality education, accessible sexual and reproductive health services throughout the country, a well-resourced criminal justice system that responds sensitively and swiftly to allegations of sexual assault, and schools that provide the support services pregnant girls need to complete their education.

Senior Regional Director for Africa at Center for Reproductive Rights