Okoth was an eager student, who enjoyed her academics and loved playing baseball and handball with her friends. She planned to attend university to become a teacher. As a result, Okoth was devastated when COVID-19 closed her school in mid-March, and her days blurred into a mundane routine of doing chores and helping her mother at her job as a sand harvester. With time on her hands, Okoth decided to visit the man from the bus, and they had sex. Just weeks later, Okoth realised she was pregnant. She says her father will prevent her from returning to school — a punishment for her pregnancy.
“I wish I had been going to school, because if I had been [occupied] going to school, this would not have happened.”
Okoth is just one of the many cases of teen pregnancies that occurred during the pandemic lockdown. One in five girls aged between 15 and 19 in Kenya is either pregnant or has given birth already, a new report shows. Old and young men alike continue to lure young girls to sex unabated despite efforts by the government, child rights activists and nongovernmental organizations to arrest these perpetrators to redeem the health, and economy of the nation. Nairobi, the capital, a city with more than four million people, has the biggest underage sex crisis with 2,432 girls aged below 14 years conceiving. COVID 19 drastically increased the number of underage pregnancies as it affected the living circumstances and safety of the girl child.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease led to the suspension of most economic activities devastating people’s means of livelihood. It also led to the closure of learning institutions last year. In Kenya, the Ministry of Education had put in place strategies to ensure continuity of education through distance online learning delivered through radio, television and the Internet. However, these strategies further widened the inequality gap, as learners from poor, vulnerable, and marginalized households were unable to benefit from continued learning through these platforms due to lack of access.
Further, with the loss of livelihoods particularly in low-income households, some children may have been forced into income-generating activities to support their families’ survival. Moreover, school closure stopped the provision of school meals and sanitary towels, which children from disadvantaged families rely on significantly. This raised the risks of young girls engaging in transactional sex in order to gain not only access to these essential needs but also to support their families. There is evidence that links poverty, lack of family support, and transactional sex. A lack of comprehensive sex education in schools has also contributed to Kenya’s alarming numbers. Currently, when sex education is taught at all, courses focus largely on HIV prevention and abstinence, which means students’ knowledge of reproductive and sexual health is often limited.
In 2020, within just three months of COVID lockdown, 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls like Okoth were reported to have become pregnant, a 40 percent increase in the monthly average. Restrictions on movement (covid-19 lockdown) also made it harder for girls to access contraceptives and family planning services leaving a good number of girls trapped in homes with predatory family members and neighbours. Statistics show that perpetrators of Sexual Violence often know the victim of sexual abuse. In the cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator: 59% were acquaintances, 34% were family members.
According to a research conducted by Plan International in 2019 across nine counties in Kenya, unintended or unwanted teenage pregnancy was a huge issue for girls, significantly impacting their lives. The research found that 98% of pregnant girls were not in school, and 59% of the pregnancies among girls aged 15-19 years were unintended. These statistics are alarming given that only 2% of teenage mothers return to school. So how is the Kenyan government ensuring that girls who fell pregnant during COVID 19 lockdown go back to school?
Education stakeholders in Kenya began calling for the government to take actions that ensure all pregnant girls will go back to school to secure their future. The Kenyan government responded by taking a stand indicating they all ought to return to school and in case parents prohibited them, they would be reported by the school administration and area Chief. In addition, the Kenyan Police shall patrol schools to ensure that all students are back and take a tally of students who haven’t reported so that they can investigate and put in custody culprits who caused the underage pregnancies.
All leaders political, communal and religious took to echo the same message that a girl falling pregnant does not mean that is the end of the road. Teen mothers should be given the opportunity to achieve their dreams. Bishop Ole Purkoi of PAG Church advised parents to be willing to take up the care of the child thus erasing the fears of the young mothers and allow their teen daughters to go back to school.
The message in Kenya is that we should let our children go to school and I urge all African nations to take a similar stand when it comes to supporting the girl child.