By Saumu Juma
Teenage pregnancy and associated stigma continues to keep many girls from completing their education in Kenya. Many teenage mothers fear returning to school due to stigma from their colleagues, teachers and even the society. Thus, they are forced to stay at home or get married against their will.
According to a report by the National Council for Population and Development, Nairobi tops other counties with 2,379 cases of pregnancy among girls aged between 10-14 years, followed by Homa Bay County with 1,530 underage pregnancies.
The report also indicates that every year, about 13,000 girls drop out of school due to unplanned pregnancies with a total of 59.3% said not to use any methods of contraception.
In 1994, Kenya introduced a ‘return to school’ policy for teenage mothers. Under this policy, any girl who gets pregnant is allowed to remain in school for as long as she wants or is able to. After delivery, she can go back to school or apply for admission into another secondary school, if she feels she would be discriminated against. The policy also says that pregnant schoolgirls and their parents are entitled to counselling.
Despite this policy being in place for the last 10 years, this is usually not the case in most schools. Some girls face hostility from members of the teaching staff while in other cases those paying for the school fees withdraw their support, resulting in school dropouts.
To mitigate the above challenge, there are a number of organizations such as Teen Seed Africa, which have come up to help the girls. Teen Seed Africa is a community organization based in Kiambiu, a an informal settlement in Buruburu Estate in Nairobi that has devoted itself to helping teen mothers to go back to school and complete their studies to better their lives.
Winnie Obure founded this organization in 2016 as a form 3 school dropout due to early pregnancy to help other girls in a similar situation.
“We work with girls and young mothers. For the girls, we help prevent issues of teenage pregnancy, school dropout, early marriages and gender based violence. On the other hand, we work with teen mums who have gone through all this and restoring them back to where they need to be”, Obure said.
Aside from that, the organization started a program in February 2020 to enable young mothers go back to school.
To qualify for the program, Obure says, the girl must be between the age of 18-24 years, have someone to take care of the babies and be an active participant in some of the organization’s community activities, such as mentoring teenagers .
Four girls were shortlisted for the back-to-school program but two of them dropped out, one of whom, Obure says, claimed that her husband didn’t want her to go to school because she would attract other men and leave him for them.
Margret Achieng,26, is one of those who have benefited from the program after she had dropped out of school in Form 1 in 2011 when she found out she was pregnant at just 15 years old.
“I was raised by a single parent and she never had time to talk to me about reproductive health because she thought I was too young for that. She used to beat me up when she found me with a guy even though I was innocent at that time. This made me question why she doesn’t punish me when I am in a girl’s company. I came across a guy who told me that I am beautiful and got influenced by my peers who already had boyfriends who bought them items such as clothes and phones to communicate”, Achieng narrates.
She gave in to the man who was in his mid- 20s. Since Achieng had no knowledge about having safe sexual intercourse, she got pregnant and dropped out of school to deliver her child, with a promise from her elder sister who was paying her school fees that she would resume once the baby was 6 months old.
However, her dreams were shuttered when she realized that her elder sister couldn’t afford to pay her fees anymore. The sister claimed that she wouldn’t manage to take care of her family and take Achieng back to school, too, as she had already messed up her life.
Achieng says that she got depressed and wanted to end her life by poisoning herself and her baby to end her misery but changed her mind to face the mistake she had made at that tender age.
After having the baby, she was advised by a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) to use contraceptives and she accepted to have a 6 -year term implant. Three years later, Achieng removed the implant because she was told that she wouldn’t bear children in the future- a step which made her get pregnant with her second child in 2016 for a man whom she says she was in an unstable relationship with.
The 26-year old met Teenseed Africa in 2019 through a friend who was already part of the group and told Achieng to go and represent her in a seminar for teenage girls and young mothers as she would not be available.
“After getting the invitation, I decided to go because I wanted to be empowered. The meeting was mixed with both genders and we discussed challenges we go through in our slum and I shared my story which touched Winnie who asked to meet me immediately after the seminar ended and asked me to be part of the group and inspire other girls,” she narrates.
Achieng says that when she heard about the school program at the end of 2019, she was so happy and applied for it with a hope that she would be among the lucky one. She was one of the two girls who got selected to resume school in January 2020 as a fresh Form 1 student at Fountaining Adult School-Moringa.
She states that the journey has not been easy for her because she had to do two classes (Form 1 and 2) that year and complete form 3 and 4 by the end of 2021. But when COVID-19 hit the country in March 2020, they stayed home for a month which affected the curriculum and is now set to finish school in March 2022.
Things were however not that easy for her because she had to miss school for work so she could pay her children’s fees and cater for their basic needs.
“My first born had been sent home for school fees for the whole term which was Ksh 6,000 (about USD 60) and I couldn’t keep going to school while my child stays at home. That would have portrayed a bad picture for me as a parent so I, at some point, wanted to drop out and focus on taking care of my children. I then started going to school even on weekends to cover up for the days I had missed,” she says.
With the unstable income, Achieng says that sometimes she would come home from school with no food to eat in the house and they would sleep hungry.
Going back to school is not an easy thing for a mother if Achieng’s experience is to go by. For example, she felt really down when her mother once told her that her first born child kept asking her (grandmother) why her mother was going to school at her age and she simply couldn’t give an answer.
Achieng says that she was relieved when the school allowed her to attend classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays only from 8a.m to 2p.m, allowing her some time to continue doing her waitress job at a local pub.
Evet Kayeri, one of the other beneficiaries, however has a different story to tell. She got pregnant at 17 years in Form 3 in 2017 with her boyfriend of two years who was by then 21 years and working as a matatu conductor.
Despite her young age, her parents allowed her to stay with the father of the child after leaving school when the pregnancy was 6 months old.
Even so, Kayeri says her mother and step dad remained very supportive of her throughout until she delivered. She also made plans with her boyfriend to save for her fees so she could resume when the baby was at least one year.
When time came for her to go back to school, they realized that they had not saved up enough money to pay for her school fees, hence they had to postpone. Unfortunately, she became pregnant again because she had skipped her daily contraceptives.
“I never knew about family planning so when my mum told me about it, I went to the hospital to seek long term implant and as usual, you have to get tested for pregnancy before they administer it to you and that’s when I found out that I was pregnant with twins,” Kayeri says.
Things became more difficult after the twins were born because she realized her partner was not faithful and she decided to end their relationship and go back home where she realized her parents had separated leaving her mother sick and unable to work.
Kayeri says she first joined Teenseed Africa in 2019 and became the other beneficiary of the school program which she qualified for because she was actively participating in peer counselling for teenagers in the slum.
The 21-year old, however, says that she has been experiencing a lot of challenges since she has to pay fees for her three siblings and her first-born child, therefore, she has to do several jobs, such as hair plaiting and teaching teens at an NGO called Hope Worldwide Kenya.
“When my brother was joining Form 1, I had to take extra classes to teach so I could manage to take him to school but recently, he was sent home for fees and I had to search for money so he could go back. My younger sister also has a whole term’s balance and I hope I will get money to pay for her too,” Kayeri says.
“I really thank Winnie because if I am stuck and need help, she normally supports me financially if she has money by that time. We sometimes get child support from the organization once in a while which really helps me.”
Kayeri says that Teenseed Africa gave her an opportunity that she never thought she could ever have and thanks to them and that has contributed to restoring her self -esteem and share her story and prevent others from falling into the same path that has changed her life.
Both the girls hope to go to college and pursue their careers and give back to the community. Achieng’ wants to do nursing while Kayeri wants to do law so she can help fight for the rights of poor victims of sexual and gender-based violence whose cases go unresolved because of corruption.
According to Obure, funding has been a major problem as they mostly rely on friends and organizations such as Global Fund for Women who donate items such as electronic devices for the girls to study and counselling services, with the rest of the burden of approximately Kshs. 10,000 (about USD 100) fee per student to be paid by them.
“Our people don’t believe in doing something for the good of the community because there have been many organizations that are fake; they only come when there’s funding. When you are working without funding they don’t understand where you get the money, they think you are doing it for the money or for the name”, she says.
“We have to be the solutions to these problems, if you choose not to, you are actually part of the problem. Why do I have to wait for a donor while there’s something we can start on our own?”