By HENRY OWINO (Senior Correspondent)
The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us now close to five months but its impacts appear to have last for several months. The effects are quite severe on human beings, economy apart from grounding general freedom of movements.
This virus has shaken various sectors of livelihoods, destabilizing gains made and future prospects. All ongoing and planned activities came to stand still culminating to closure and collapse of others.
Picking on learning institutions which are the centers of prosperities in terms of shaping careers are currently shutdown. What was assumed as temporary situation and things would improve after short while, turned out to be long lasting condition.
In Kenya, this is the very first time in the history of education for learning institutions to close indefinitely and for longest period ever experienced. The schools closure means all stakeholders thus teachers, tutors, lecturers and learners are all at home with less work unscheduled.
Had the pandemic been anticipated for then there could be plans in advance to enable continuous learning process via media technology. Since this never happened, direct beneficiaries like students and teachers are left in dilemma not withstanding indirect benefice-holders.
Since education sector has the highest numbers of people gaining either directly or indirectly, majority are in low morale exacerbated by joblessness and unduly burden of stress to some team members.
Private learning institutions are worse hit by impacts of Covid-19 pandemic. Most teachers, the only source of their income is shut. A few teachers tried to make ends meet by coaching candidates but stopped as parents could not pay.
Yet other learners gave up the tuition as national examinations are postponed until next year. Such teachers find themselves broke and unsympathetic landlords, lock them out.
A teacher, who was hired by Board of Management (BOM) in public school, has been offering private tuitions from his house to earn a living but learners quitted. Mr Alfred Juma says life is tough and next course of action is to sell a few house belongings and travel to countryside.
“I don’t want to end up begging for food, rent and other essentials. It is better I leave the house vacant for the landlord instead of locking me out with property inside like a few colleagues of mine,” Mr Juma explains.
An example is a teacher in one of the best primary schools in Nairobi County who is accused of impregnating his student. The 16 year old student in Form two has been taking food to the teacher while the teacher coaches her.
In the long run, this developed into sexual relationship and the 37 years old teacher, is now accused of impregnating the student. The matter was pre-empted by the parents before a legal NGO operating in the estate took it up for justice. The teacher has since been incarcerated while the student is nursing her three months pregnancy.
Parents on the other hand, are double jeopardized by this pandemic disease as they need to take care of their children, protect them from contracting virus and closely supervise them, a role initially played by teachers.
Many parents seem to have lost the track of parenting as children wander all over places. Results of these are inevitable such as teenage pregnancies, criminal activities and accidents mostly by motorbikes.
Sarah Otieno, a parent admits difficulties she experiences with her children as they are at home in this unpredicted holiday. She claims, children have become as cunning as a hare even the one that looked as gentle as a lamb, are all the same and mischievous as a monkey.
“We appreciate the role teachers play while in school sessions. I do admit that our own children are difficult to manage at home. You talk until accused of being too much talkative or noisy in residential plot,” Mrs Otieno, admits. I warned mine in case she becomes pregnant, let her go and marry the man.”
“Our children are stubborn mine are playful as a kitten. Surely, teachers play vital role in disciplining and shaping a child’s characters. Right now children walk aimlessly without assisting in house chore duties apart from eating and sleeping,” Roswell Onyango, parent laments.
“Disciplining a grown up girl or a boy is also a challenge with the existing children’s right. For me, I have advised my children as mother and even invited church pastor for counseling session. In fact, wandering is peer pressure no wonder several cases of teenage pregnancy and many are hit by over-speeding motorbikes,” Mary Atieno, parent cautions.
According Dr Nelly Bosire, Consultant Gynaecologist said the time is ripe for parents and the society at large to start having candid conversations in a safe space about sex and reproductive health with both adolescent girls and boys.
Parents need to be approachable and open to engaging their own children on sexual matters while the rest of society provides role models to complement the parents in mentoring teenagers on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH).
“This conversation should start at home. We’re failing because we’re trying to have these conversations, policy-wise, in school. The government is taking up the responsibilities of parents, but it’s essentially a parent’s role to do,” Dr Bosire said.
According to Kennedy Echesa, Lecturer and Education Expert, most students especially in upper primary and those in early forms in high schools are much stubborn due to biological changes experiences. Majority are in puberty stage and eager to prove their sexual maturity with the opposite sex.
Dr Echesa said stubborn behavior is precipitated by idleness accompanied by abundant freedom unlike during normal school holidays.
“Remember, this long holiday was unplanned, therefore; no homework assigned, no end year national examinations, closure duration is well-known, mass repeating of classes is an equalizer cushioning all hence no victimization of poor performance to any learners,” Dr Echesa explains.
“So, these could be some of justifications most students are currently relying on as they enjoy this longest holiday ever in education sector,”Dr Echesa affirms.
One of students in Kawangware estate, Nairobi County told ScienceAfrica that subtle pressure of biological, social and psychological moods for teenagers in 21st Century is extremely complicated.
Maryann Kemunto, not her real name, claimed at Form two and aged 16, she is old enough to make right decisions. She maintained having sex is personal and happens between two opposite sexes upon consent hence parents have no obligations.
“Anyway I did not know initially how the Coronavirus would affect my education, but once the government shut schools and told us to stay at home and not to visit others to prevent getting infected from the virus, many teenagers underestimated the situation,” Kumunto says.
Kemunto revealed her sexual intercourse was with her real brother at age 6 but was not aware of taboos around it. However, as she grew up, realized it was an incest relationship and since then she has been dating young men she considers mature and use contraceptives.
“My parents enjoyed their teenage lifestyle in 19th Century when sex was obscene in the society especially among unmarried. Nowadays sex is all over in media and other platforms so, children grow up with sex in mind and are always craving to give it a try,” she explains.
“Naturally every girl or boy will always be attracted to opposite sex and this you can’t avoid. So, precautions are necessary even one enjoys sex to avoid stress of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” Kemunto argues.
However, Kemunto discloses that most teenagers would indulge in unprotected sex and use postinor tablets to prevent fertilization. Those who take pills after 72 hours are unlucky ending up being pregnant hence high rates.
According to Dr John Ong’ech, Chief Medical Specialist in Obstetrics & Gynaecology, at Kenyatta National Hospital, the dilemma with current generation is standing out while fitting in. The struggle for identity is hard. Teenagers like to be different, but at the same time they want to fit in.
“Because of this, they often face pressure from peers, parents and society to behave a certain way to feel accepted and valued by those around them. Achieving all these is may be difficult with biological changes taking place within them hence the rebellion,” Dr Ong’ech explains.
Dr Ong’ech, however clarified girls tend to be more affected by these kinds of social setbacks than boys, as they put a greater emphasis on interpersonal connectedness. And therefore are more sensitive to peer stress and negative self-evaluation.
Such attitude in teenage girls makes them susceptible to men who may offer money or anything that could change their lives. Men would take advantage of such girls regardless of age and sleep with them as a pay back.
“Some girls unfortunately in the process get pregnant because their body hormones change very fast at this age also depending on environment, food eaten and mood,” Dr Ong’ech adds.
According to Plan International adolescent pregnancies are a global problem but occur most often in poorer and marginalized communities. Many girls face considerable pressure to marry early and become mothers while they are still a child.
Kate Maina-Vorley, Country Director, Plan International Kenya, said teenage pregnancy increases when girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Girls must be able to make their own decisions about their bodies and futures and have access to appropriate healthcare services and education.
For instance, lack of information about sexual and reproductive health and rights, Inadequate access to services tailored to young people, Family, community and social pressure to marry, Sexual violence, Child, early and forced marriage, which can be both a cause and a consequence and lack of education or dropping out of school.
Maina-Vorley noted recent reports of a spike in teenage pregnancies across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown have been met with shock, angst, and disbelief.
“Additionally, the data on prevalence circulating on various platforms has been contested and cited as being exaggerated with ulterior motives. Remember data never lies.” Maina-Vorley affirms.
Given the seriousness of this matter, the Africa Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) sought to validate and compare the number of teenagers presenting with pregnancy from the Kenya Health Information Management System (KHIS) in 2019 to 2020.
The data show that the number of girls, aged 10-19 years, presenting with pregnancy in January-May in 2019 and 2020 are not that different and leaning more towards a decline in 2020. Decline in use of health facilities during the COVID 19 period and delay in validation of the latest figures in 2020 may account for lower numbers in 2020.
A quick trend analysis shows that Nairobi County is leading with 11,795 teenage pregnancies in the period Jan-May 2020. This is slightly higher than last year’s figures in the same period where there were 11,410 cases reported.
Kakamega County is a close second with 6,686 cases compared to 8,109 cases last year. Machakos County, that has been the focus of the latest public outcry on teen pregnancy ranks number 14 with 3,966 cases registered this year compared to 4,710 cases last year. From all the counties, the total numbers reported for the period January-May 2020 are 151,433 compared to 175,488 for the same period in 2019.
Recently, Migori County reported 700 teenage girls pregnant in three months since Covid-19 pandemic situation in the country. The figure for the whole country, it is feared, may run into several thousands.
It is important to note that the KHIS data only captures cases reported in the health sector and so it is possible that there are many other pregnant girls who are not counted because they have not been to the health facilities. On the other hand, briefings from the Ministry of Health in the past weeks indicate that these numbers also capture multiple visits and hence are not reflective of the exact number of pregnancies.
“One thing we can safely conclude from the data available is that the evidence presented does not support an upsurge in teenage pregnancy because of COVID-19 school shutdown and movement restrictions,” Bernard Onyango, Senior Research and Policy Analyst, AFIDEP says.
The reality is that teenage pregnancy is high in counties across the country. It has remained so for some time now despite the periodic outcry when numbers on teenage pregnancy are released. This therefore calls for a redoubling of efforts and change intact on how to address this menace that is holding back our girls from maximizing their full potential.
The gravity of high teenage pregnancy is not new in Kenya. Data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) show that almost 2 out of 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are reported to be pregnant or have had a child already. This trend has been fairly consistent for more than two decades with little change in prevalence between 1993 and 2014.
Teen pregnancies are a major challenge for socioeconomic development because they deprive our young girls the opportunity to further their education and attain their career goals. It also exposes them and their children to major health risks.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), “pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally.”
While teenage pregnancy in Kenya is high and needs to remain at the top of the government’s political agenda, it sporadically gets into public discourse triggered by certain events, after which it gets buried and people continue with business as usual.
For instance, the last time this issue headlined and drew as much public uproar was during the national examination period in 2018 with reports of several young girls pregnant or giving birth while sitting for either their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) and Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations.
Currently, Covid-19 pandemic that led to schools closedown and movement restrictions among other measures is being blamed for high rates of teenage pregnancies. Kenyans must learn to remain proactive other than being reactive to situations when things are out of hands.
Elizabeth Kahurani, Policy Engagement & Communications Manager at AFIDEP says to turn the tide and protect young girls from teen pregnancies, there is urgent need to address systemic drivers of teen pregnancies by fully funding and consistently implementing cost-effective programs. Cultural, religious, and socio-economic factors that contribute to this problem are multiple and layered and interventions for addressing these are well known.
“As society, we need to confront hard truths and realities of the issue with honesty and openness. Calling a spade, a spade would offer solution to these teenage pregnancies instead of waiting for certain events to trigger public discourse for blame,” Kahurani cautions.
Efforts to address teenage pregnancies and other sexual and reproductive health matters are resisted by parents, religious leaders, political leaders and other stakeholders despite the mounting evidence that young people are initiating sex earlier than in the past.
“Proven interventions like appropriate sexuality education are also often dismissed with the view that they would encourage young people to indulge in sex. In order to address this challenge decisively, it is important that evidence plays a central role in determining interventions that can stump out the problem from its root cause,” Kahurani emphasizes.
She suggests as the country takes strides towards the achievement of Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)targets, all stakeholders including the United Nations, the government of Kenya, faith based communities, parents and others should all work together to empower adolescents and young people for positive health outcomes.
Young people are the backbone of this country and adults owe them the best investment for the future through a multi-sectoral approach. Failure to do that means any national transformative agenda, including the SDGs and the Big Four Agenda, will be difficult to achieve.
Finally, girls and young women should be allowed the right to sexual and reproductive health services, despite Covid-19 impacts. Government directives on restrictions of movement must not lock it out but include them as essential services.