In my country Kenya as in other parts of Africa, young girls face severe threats to their health and general well being. They are vulnerable to sexual assault, prostitution, too-early pregnancy and childbearing, unsafe abortion, malnutrition, female genital mutilation, infertility, anemia, and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) including STIs and HIV/AIDS.
When a girl as young as 15 years old gets pregnant she undergoes untold emotional and physical suffering. Most of us who are within the same age bracket will shame and mock her. The adults are not any different, they emotionally and even physically harass the girl. Having seen my cousin Grace go through this humiliation, I am left wondering, who is there to support these girls. What government strategies are there to prevent teenage pregnancies and support the girls who get pregnant to get back to their feet?. The situation is even worse among those from poor families.
When Grace got pregnant while in high school at form three, the parents were so annoyed. “You have brought so much shame to my family and you will never amount to anything in life!”. The mother yelled at her. “You have messed up your entire life, be ready to live the most miserable future”, her father continued.
Grace represents the plight and face of any teen who got pregnant at a very early age. The stigma from the society is quite overwhelming. The peers also do not make it any better for her. The shame the society puts them through for having engaged in premarital sex and before completing their studies makes them feel like they will never be anything in future. The same situation was replicated at my school where one of us was thoroughly bullied just because she was pregnant. This took me to try and understand my own country Kenya and look at the structures and policies that support the young teenage mothers and also who seeks to understand and at the same time listen to their sexual and reproductive health needs.
First and foremost, Grace had no idea on how to prevent unintended pregnancies. This came from failed parenting where the parents were too busy chasing their careers and had no time to guide her through the life challenges that teenagers face. Secondly the education system in our country discourages sex education in school. This brings a big gap addressing the sexual reproductive health . At the same time the health sector lacks youth friendly corners where the young people can comfortably walk in and seek counseling on matters sexual and reproductive health. In addition to that, health care providers also lack the knowledge and skill to address this sensitive subject matter due to their own attitudes and beliefs about teenage sexuality. With all these gaps in knowledge and health service delivery, the impact of early motherhood is staggering-depression, isolation, stigma and even death. More alarming is that in Kenya 26 in every 100 teenagers get married or are married off before they reach their 18th birthday. “The uncomfortable picture that emerges in these early pregnancies is that 70000 adolescents in developing countries die each year from complications during pregnancy and child birth,” said the Population Studies and Research lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
Joyce was only 16 when she discovered that she was pregnant. Out of confusion, she approached her best friend since she couldn’t face her mother and tell what the situation was. He best friend advised her to visit a certain “doctor” who would provide an abortion and no one would come to know about it. Out of desperation, Joyce accepted and a date to visit the said “doctor’ was set. They did sneak away from home to visit this ‘doctor’. All was not well at the doctors place and Joyce had to be transferred to the government hospital after her condition worsened. She passed on seven days later as a result of the complications associated with unsafe abortion as it later emerged that this was indeed a quack and not a qualified doctor. This is one statistic among the many young girls who pass on because of the complications related to early pregnancies. My question is who has failed?. I feel we have all failed in our own way as family, peers, the community and the government at large.
Investment in developing and sustaining robust advocacy for teenage access to accessible, affordable, and quality reproductive health education and service provision is the final priority. This is what corporations need to do. Corporations should create broad coalitions of advocates at local and national levels that can help to change, implement, and protect laws that support this course. They can also document and expose consequences of poor health service provision and information access among young girls. There is need to reach girls with crucial information, and work to address the additional and underlying challenge of gender and socioeconomic inequality that can compromise girl’s right to make decisions about their health, even after several policies and laws to protect them are legalized.