22 July 2014

Kenya: Reviving Kenyan 'Return to School' Policy May End Teenage Mums' Poverty, Ignorance

Nairobi — Teresia got pregnant at 15 and dropped out of school because her father refused to pay her fees. Nineteen years later, she is a mother of six.

Although she wanted only two children, she was afraid that contraceptives would give her cancer. "The children just kept coming and it seems there was nothing I could do," she told Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.

None of her children has gone beyond primary school and the family lives in a cramped two-room home.


Child marriage - being discussed at Tuesday's Girl Summit in London - is not a problem only in cultures where girls are married off to protect them from sex outside wedlock.

It also happens because teenage girls get pregnant of their own accord.

"Oftentimes, early marriage is really just an early pregnancy problem," said Chi-Chi Undie, a researcher with Population Council who has done extensive field work in the area. "A girl gets pregnant and if the guy is ready to take you in, you are married."

In Homa Bay County in western Kenya, 25 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 are married or in an informal union, according to government statistics, and almost half the teenage brides are married to a man less than five years older than them.

"Some were getting married as young as age ten or even younger," Undie said.

The region also has Kenya's highest teenage pregnancy rates. In Homa Bay County, 40 percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls are pregnant or have given birth, well above the national average of 18 percent, according to the government's 2011 survey.

"Who's to say who's having more sex?" asked Undie. "It's just about who's protecting themselves more often... Some people are more savvy about contraception."

Teenage pregnancy and child marriage are most common among poor, uneducated girls, the government found. These girls are the least likely to know about or use contraception.

"There are lots of myths and misconceptions about family planning," said Undie. "You can give birth to an animal. Your child will be born looking weird ... Condoms go all the way up into the stomach and don't come out."


Teenage pregnancy and child marriage are dangerous for the mother and her baby. Both are at higher risk of illness and death, and domestic violence and poverty are more widespread in such homes.

"It's a cycle that's very hard to break," said Undie. "If the change doesn't happen now, when a girl still has the opportunity to go back to secondary school, it affects the next generation."

In Homa Bay, part of the region formerly known as Nyanza Province, 64 percent of women went only to primary school, government data for 2008/09 showed. Sixteen percent start but do not complete secondary school, 11 percent complete secondary school and six percent enter tertiary education. Two percent have no education at all.

The Population Council is in the early stages of a three-year project aimed at getting more teenage mothers back into school.

"We hope ... to really change the way people in Homa Bay County might be thinking about a girl's potential when she gets pregnant," Undie said. "Her life hasn't stopped. She can do so much to help herself and the family out if she could just be allowed to go to school."

On paper, Kenya has a very progressive 'return to school' policy for teenage mums, introduced in 1994.

"A girl that gets pregnant is really supposed to be allowed to remain in school for as long as she thinks she can," said Undie. "After delivery, she is supposed to be allowed to come back. Or she is supposed to be given support to gain admission into another secondary school if she feels there are issues of stigma and discrimination."

The policy also says that pregnant schoolgirls and their parents should receive counselling to help them work things out.

In addition, secondary education is nominally free in Kenya. The government pays for teaching while students' families fund transport, uniforms and meals.

"Despite the really brilliant policy, a lot of school personnel are not really well versed in it," said Undie.

"Teachers don't want them back. There's always that sense that: 'Letting you be here is sort of contagious. It will cause other girls to get pregnant while they are here and it's not ok'. The school environment is just hostile."

Undie and her team will meet the heads of every government secondary day schools in Homa Bay County to hear their views. They will also talk to girls who have dropped out of school, the husbands of child brides, parents, teachers and students about reviving the school re-entry policy.

In January, the Emmy-award winning social communications firm Well Told Story will start broadcasting a radio soap opera focused on an out-of-school teenage mother to get people thinking and talking about the issue.

"As people have more information and live vicariously through an exciting radio character, I think they are more likely to dare to test the waters," said Undie.

She has a track record of success. A similar project managed to boost contraceptive use among child brides from 38 to 46 percent in one year.

Editing by Tim Pearce; timothy.pearce@thomsonreuters.com

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