April 29 (IPS) – Kenya’s Ministry of Health recently reported that there were 45,754 teenage pregnancies cases between January and February this year, equating to 700 cases per day. Out of the total number, at least 2,000 of these cases resulted from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), a figure that is likely lower than the reality.
In addition, 98 girls were reported to have contracted HIV every week during the study period.
Being a teenage mom myself and now a sexual and reproductive health advocate came close to home. As Kenyans, we cultivated and normalized a culture of public outcry about issues of concern and moved on quickly after that.
This must change. We must pay attention to this crisis and deal with it. The price to be paid if the current trends continue is too high, because it touches directly on the lives of the future of our great Republic.
The effects of teenage pregnancies are often detrimental to the social and economic aspects of young mothers. Keep in mind that teenage mothers often drop out of school because of the stigma and are not sufficiently supported postpartum to return to school in their new motherhood status.
Disruptions in education ultimately create a vicious circle of economic dependence, often on people who take advantage of their vulnerability. There are also health risks, such as infections and obstetric fistulas, as well as mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. In addition, adolescent babies are more likely to have low birth weight and severe neonatal conditions.
The startling figures from earlier this year point to two scenarios. On the one hand, it is that adolescents have consensual sex with each other. This can be attributed to curiosity and the raging hormonal changes that pour in at puberty.
On the other hand, incidents may indicate a crisis of sexual and gender-based violence perpetuating the teenage pregnancy crisis in the country. For both scenarios, Kenya has a robust legal and policy framework to prevent these crises that needs to be better deployed.
The Constitution, the country’s supreme law, explicitly guarantees the right to reproductive health in Article 43. This works in conjunction with the National Policy on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (2015) that applies a preventive approach to teenage pregnancies through, among other things, access to correct sexual and reproductive health information.
In addition, the Return to School Policy which provides guidelines on adolescent mothers’ reintegration to school, postpartum. In addition, the Children’s Act, the Sexual Offenses Act and the criminal code they all prescribe strict punishment for sexual and gender-based violence.
These are supplemented with the Kenya School Health Policy which ideally indemnifies the students against this.
So there are laws, but the problem is with the implementation – or lack thereof, of these solid frameworks.
Implementation is also hindered when conscripts misinterpret or do not know their own policies. Recently, a senior Health Ministry official publicly stated that giving contraceptives to minors is a criminal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
However, this is not a faithful reflection of the existing legal and policy framework. In his erroneous statement pointing to a draft policy yet to be adopted, the ministry official misled millions of Kenyans.
The current crisis shows how crucial it is for adolescents to receive accurate information about sexual and reproductive health, products and services in order to make informed decisions. Opponents argue that this would increase promiscuity among adolescents.
However, that perspective remains an inadequate response because the fact is that whether we like it or not, teens have sex — a lot of them do. They should therefore be able to make freely informed decisions that protect their health and future.
As we enter the month of May, which is dedicated to preventing and ending teenage pregnancies around the world, the Kenyan government must work deliberately to end the plague that has persisted over the years.
The Ministry of Health must provide products and services for prevention and mitigation in accordance with the law. The Ministry of Education should work towards standardization and comprehensive sex education across the country.
To encourage this, Kenya should support the regional Ministerial Commitment On Comprehensive Sex Education and Sexual and Reproductive Health Services for Adolescents and Youth in Eastern and Southern Africa who signed it in 2013, but balked at re-signing in December 2021.
The Ministry of the Interior and Coordination of the national government, which includes security, must work on investigations and provide evidence for the prosecution of perpetrators.
The Ministry of Culture must also fight against harmful traditional practices that fuel the crises. All this in collaboration with the ministries involved, which house the youth affairs and gender affairs files respectively. Until then, the health, lives and future of Kenyan girls are at stake.
Stephanie Musho is a human rights lawyer and Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute
© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service