Kenya: Government ministries must work together to end Kenya’s teenage pregnancy crisis

Kenya’s Ministry of Health recently reported that there were 45,754 cases of teenage pregnancies between January and February this year, which translates to 700 cases per day. Of the total number, at least 2,000 of these cases result from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), a figure that is likely lower than the reality.

What’s more, each week 98 girls are said to have contracted HIV during the study period.

Having been a teenage mother myself and now an advocate for sexual and reproductive health, the disturbing statistics hit hard. As Kenyans, we cultivated and normalized a culture of public outcry over matters of concern and soon after we quickly moved on.

This must change. We must pay attention to this crisis and deal with it. The price to pay if current trends continue is too high, because it directly affects the future life of our great Republic.

The effects of teenage pregnancy are often deleterious effects that affect the social and economic aspects of young mothers. Consider that often teenage mothers drop out of school due to stigma and are not supported enough postpartum to return to school in their new status as mothers.

Disruptions to education ultimately perpetuate a vicious circle of economic dependence, often on people who abuse their vulnerability. There are also health risks, such as infections and obstetric fistula, among others, as well as mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, babies born to adolescents are more likely to have low birth weight and serious neonatal conditions.

The startling figures from the start of this year point to two scenarios. For one thing, teens engage in consensual sex with each other. This could be attributed to curiosity and the raging hormonal changes that occur during puberty.

On the other hand, the incidents could indicate a crisis of sexual and gender-based violence that is perpetuating the teenage pregnancy crisis in the country. For both scenarios, Kenya has a strong legal and policy framework to prevent these crises which needs to be better utilized.

The Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, explicitly guarantees the right to reproductive health in Article 43. This works in tandem with the National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy (2015) which uses a preventative approach to teenage pregnancy through, among other things, access to correct information on sexual and reproductive health.

Additionally, the Return to School Policy provides guidelines on reintegrating teenage mothers into school after childbirth. In addition, the Children’s Act, the Sexual Offenses Act and the Penal Code all provide severe penalties for sexual and gender-based violence.

These are complemented by the Kenya School Health Policy which ideally protects learners from the same.

So, there are laws, but the problem lies in having in place – or not having in place – these solid frameworks.

Implementation is further hampered when duty bearers misinterpret or ignore their own policies. Just recently, a senior Health Ministry official publicly stated that giving birth control to minors is a criminal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

However, it is not an accurate representation of the existing legal and policy framework. In his erroneous statement which pointed to a draft policy which has yet to be enacted, the ministry official misled millions of Kenyans.

The current crisis shows how essential it is for adolescents to receive correct information about sexual and reproductive health, products and services in order to make informed decisions. Opponents argue that it would increase promiscuity among teens.

However, this perspective remains an inadequate rebuttal because the fact is that, whether we like it or not, teenagers have sex – a lot too. They must therefore freely make informed decisions that protect their health and their future.

As we enter the month of May dedicated to preventing and ending teenage pregnancy worldwide, the Kenyan government must work intentionally to end this scourge that has persisted for years.

The Ministry of Health must provide prevention and mitigation products and services in accordance with the law. The Ministry of Education should strive to standardize and provide comprehensive sex education across the country.

To galvanize this, Kenya needs to reaffirm the Regional Ministerial Commitment on Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Sexual and Reproductive Health Services for Adolescents and Young People in Eastern and Southern Africa, which it signed in 2013 but avoided renewing in December 2021.

The Ministry of Interior and National Government Coordination, which is responsible for security, must endeavor to investigate and provide evidence for the prosecution of the perpetrators.

The Ministry of Culture must also fight against harmful traditional practices that fuel crises. All of this should be done in collaboration with the relevant ministries that house youth and gender affairs files respectively. Until then, the health, lives and future of Kenyan girls are at stake.

The author is a human rights lawyer and Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Ashley C. Reynolds