15 January 2018

Kenya: Debate in Kenya - What to Tell Kids About Sex

Photo: Namibia Economist
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At what age should we talk to kids about sex? And what should we tell them? As opinions diverge, Kenyans are trying to find appropriate answers.

When was the first time you were given "the talk?"

"I was 12. My dad told me not to have sex until I was married."

"I was 14 and all the girls were pulled out of class by the nuns and told about not having sex before marriage and we need to be careful."

"If you talk to boys you'll get pregnant," one man jokingly adds, chipping in to the conversation.

In Kenya, people of all ages love talking about anything and everything. But for many people of an older generations, there is one exception - the subject of sex.

Many parents are still reluctant to talk about sex, which means that many children are left with no choice but to look for information on the web or find out about it from friends. If a young person falls pregnant or contracts HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, she or he is accused of "behaving badly."

"I discovered that I was pregnant at the age of 17," remembers Christina Adhiambo. "Now I can laugh about it," she says. "When I told my mom she asked why I did not use a condom. I was like, how am I supposed to know where to get condoms if not from you?"

Today Christina works as a voice artist as she waits to start university. She still lives with her parents and the child's father helps to take care of the baby.

"I wish that I knew more at a younger age. Looking now at the kids who are in similar situations, I feel that they need to be told about it much earlier," she says. "We have girls who start their periods at the age of nine, meaning by the time they sit for their exams they are at risk of doing it pregnant if someone doesn't talk about it." Adhiambo herself caught up with school, but at age 23, she says she would have liked to finish her education before having a child.

What should be taught in schools

According to surveys, over a third of the teenagers between the age of 15 and 19 in Kenya have already had sex. Between July 2016 and June 2017 more than 300,000 adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19 fell pregnant. Almost half of the new HIV infections are among young people.

Despite these numbers and the taboos which already surround talking about sex, a faith based advocacy group called "CitizenGo" has petitioned the government against introducing a new Comprehensive Sex Education or CSE program in schools, which would go hand-in-hand with the start of Kenya's revised school curriculum. The regional campaign manager, Ann Kioko, says that the proposed curriculum will lead to children becoming more promiscuous, not less.

"Why we are rejecting this curriculum is because it is a foreign based curriculum that is being imported to Africa," argues Kioko. "This curriculum is destructive. It teaches children that they are sexual from the time that they are born and that they can experiment with their bodies as early as when they are five years old," she continues.

According to the government, comprehensive sexuality education is an age appropriate skill based curriculum empowering young people with accurate information about sex. The executive director from the Center for the Study of Adolescence Kenya, Albert Obuyi, thinks that education and the bible are not mutually exclusive. "If all of us were faithful to our religion, there would be no teenage pregnancies and sexual violence. And so we must just be pragmatic to respond to these issues in our context," Obuyi says

A study conducted by the US-based Guttmacher Institute and the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Center in 2016 showed that Kenyan teenagers want to be taught how to use contraceptives, including condoms, oral pills and injectables, as part of their sex education in school and at home. They also want to know where to get these products so as to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and prevent unplanned pregnancies.

"The problems with that we are having in our country are local problems that need to have to local solutions. So teenage pregnancies, female genital mutilation (FGM) are not foreign impositions these are problems in our society. We can't hide from these problems any further," Obuyi argues.

Everyone's talking about it

In fact, demand is high. In 2009, a weekly relationship TV series called "Shuga" became a big hit. It featured the lives of young people, their relationships and addressed everything from the phenomenon of "sugar daddies or mommies" to stigma from an entertainment standpoint, rather than a purely educational one. It was sponsored by The US President's Emergency Fund for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), It was produced by Kenyan and Nigerian production houses, early episodes included international stars like Lupita Nyong'o, before she shot to fame and it won awards at the World Media Festival in Hamburg, Germany.

A popular government sponsored ad campaign, "Ni poa kuchill" or "It's cool to chill" also sparked conversations. The advert tried to convey to young people that it was fine to wait a while before having sex. It was voted as one of the most successful campaigns in reducing HIV transmission rates in the country which stood at 12 percent at the time, although as researchers at the African Population and Health Research Center point out, abstinence-only messages are often ineffective.

Online media and commercials on TV, or billboards from Kenyan condom brands have however also made their way to the youths, despite the odd ban from Kenya's film board over adverts they they termed as "glamourizing sex among teenagers."

For now the government will continue with its campaigns to try and provide responsible information for young people in school. The petitioners who are against the new schoo l program say too that they refuse to back down.

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