NJOROGE: Why teaching abstinence isn't enough to curb teen pregnancy

"If we are going to teach abstinence then let us follow through with it fully."

In Summary
  • Do you remember “Nimechill”? The campaign slogan with the 2 crossed fingers implying legs and therefore abstinence.
  • Did that work in Kenya? Does advocating for abstinence actually work?

Teen pregnancy has been a major concern to both the government and policymakers.

One of the major solutions often offered is the need to teach abstinence.

US study finds that chastity, sexual purity or Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE, as it is officially called) does more harm than good.

The study established that abstinence raises adults with a skewed view of sexuality and not enough information to be sexually responsible.

But is that the case in Kenya?

Do you remember “Nimechill”? The campaign slogan with the 2 crossed fingers implies legs and therefore abstinence.

Did that work in Kenya? Does advocating for abstinence actually work?

Last month Health CS Susan Nakhumicha stated that she will not distribute condoms or other contraceptives to teens.

“I am Mama Kanisa (a church woman), therefore number one is abstinence; that we teach our youth, our adolescents to abstain,” CS Nakhumicha said.

She spoke a week after the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima urged Kenya to allow teenagers to access contraceptives.

So which way do we go? Condoms and contraception, or abstinence? Can our teens adhere to ‘Nimechill”?

Apparently, they can.

In 2011, Lucy Akoth Otieno conducted a research project to determine the impact of abstinence campaigns in reducing teenage pregnancy in Mathare North.

She looked at the impact of a campaign dubbed “You think that is dumb. So is teenage sex. Be smart, abstain”.

She found that despite the verbose moniker, teenagers actually recalled a lot of the information passed on and that abstinence rates did go up.

The codicil however, is that these campaigns “must run continuously and other interpersonal channels like peer educators employed to improve on its (campaign) success”.

Otieno also recommended that ‘edutainment’ programs be used to address teen concerns around sexuality.

But are our teens really getting pregnant in romantic relationships? Are whispered sweet nothings to blame for our children having babies?

If only the issue were that simple, we would run multiple abstinence campaigns and be done with it.

The painful truth is that our girls are either coerced or manipulated by grown men in exchange for necessities like water, food, pads or boda boda rides home from school. They are falling prey to predatory men.

Two weeks ago, Nyanza MPs - Hon Millie Odhiambo, Hon Ruth Odinga and Hon Joyce Osogo decried the high rates of child molestation in the region and called for stiffer sentences for those found guilty. 

But this is not a Nyanza issue. Prosecutorial rates are low across the country.

And even when children get their days in court and the evidence shows that they were indeed assaulted or molested we had rulings that do not favour the victims.

Last year Justice George Odunga, at the High Court (The High Court!) ruled that minimum sentencing in the Sexual Offenses Act is unconstitutional taking us back decades in lawmaking.

For many reasons rape and sexual remain the most unreported crimes in the country.

So where does this leave our teenagers? Especially as we aim to prepare them for a sexually responsible adulthood.

The bedrock of abstinence is the belief that sex is wonderful, powerful, potentially dangerous and even sacred.

That our bodies are in fact precious and that we should hold what we do with them in high regard.

For our government to hold Kenyan bodies as precious is a great place to start. 

Upholding the belief that our bodies are worthy of protection and high regard cannot start in adulthood.

We must start early in our homes and schools, continue through tertiary institutions of learning and then contextualize this belief system in professional settings so that police, the judiciary and even bankers and engineers know what it means to them.

Some of the judgements we have witnessed indicate a need for capacity building within the judiciary so that court officers better understand sexual dynamics.

Information about our bodies and sexuality invariably delays our sexual debut. Yes, we should teach abstinence and how to create it so that teens have clear boundaries with romantic partners.

Let us also go after those who violate the bodies of others zealously to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate them.

And when, or if, the custodians of justice fail or make questionable decisions they too must face disciplinary action.

If we are going to teach abstinence then let us follow through with it fully.

Give our children the tools to remain abstinent; and punish anyone who molests or violates that abstinence to the full extent of the law.

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