The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the challenge of adolescent pregnancies in Kenya. The term ‘adolescent’ has been defined in the Reproductive Health Bill, 2019 as any person between the age of 10 to 18 years. A majority of victims of adolescent pregnancies are teenagers between the age of 13 to 18 years not excluding teenagers aged 19.
According to the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), between January and May 2020, there were 11, 795 cases of teenage pregnancies in Nairobi county, 6, 686 cases of teenage pregnancies in Kakamega and 3,996 cases in Machakos County (Kahurani, 2020).
To some people, these statistics may look like mere numbers on a screen but for someone who has gone through the horror of an unplanned pregnancy a single teenage pregnancy is one too many. An unplanned adolescent/teenage pregnancy adversely affects the girls involved. From the statistics above, 22, 447 girls may not be able to return to school because of the huge responsibilities that come with motherhood. The return rate for girls to school after they get pregnant is 2% (Ajayi, 2020).
Further, the social and economic status of teenage pregnant girls depreciates and is likely to remain low that for a long time because at that age they have not completed the education required for them to secure employment nor the skills to start and run successful businesses. Teenage mothers are then forced to either depend on their parents, putting strain on the households that they are in or remain in relationships with partners who may not care for them, be abusive to them or are older men who may have put them in that situation in the first place (Ajayi, 2020).
Apart from the social and economic impacts that are faced by such mothers, the health impacts facing such mothers cannot be understated. Both physical and mental impacts on health are felt by girls who fall pregnant in their teenage years. The risk of perinatal death is higher for teenage mothers. A third of unintended pregnancies by teenagers also end in unsafe abortions (Ajayi, 2020). The stress, mental pain and agony that such mothers go through is also a reality that they have to grapple with. Young mothers at that age sometimes ideate, attempt or commit suicide out of anxiety for what the future looks like.
Past challenges that come with child bearing also comes the stigma associated with raising a child alone which may include diminished prospects of marriage, in some instances also limited capacity to negotiate for safe sex and consent. Not to talk of the risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases e.g. HIV/AIDS among teen mothers (Ajayi, 2020).
To put the statistics into better perspective, 1 in 5 girls falls pregnant before they attain the age of 19 years. The bigger question than just the statistics and consequences of adolescent pregnancies is why is there a high rate of adolescent pregnancies? Transactional sex, especially in the COVID-19 era, is said to be one of the major causes of girls getting pregnant. Some parents as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have lost jobs and hence sacrifice their young girls to prostitution and other vices so that the girls can be able to afford their daily needs e.g. sanitary towels as well as provide for the family (Carolyne Njue, 2011)
Apart from transactional sex, unless an adolescent falls pregnant by engaging with sexual activities with their peers, adolescents, especially those who are below the age of 18 years do not have the capacity to consent to sex. Predators sometimes take advantage of the vulnerability of such young girls, coercing them into unprotected sex that leads them to falling pregnant. More often than not, the predators are known to the victims of defilement e.g. fathers, uncles or grandfathers of the victims of such crimes (Muraya, 2020).
Apart from the social and economic conditions that cause an increase in adolescent pregnancies, the law has also failed in ensuring that adolescents have access to reproductive health rights and services. The major piece of legislation which provides for reproductive health services for adolescents is the Health Act No. 21 of 2017. Section 6 (1) of the Health Act, 2017 provides for “the right of men and women of reproductive age to be informed about, and to have access to reproductive health services including to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable family planning services.”
According to the World Health Organization, the reproductive age is between 15 to 49 years (World Health Organization , 2006). The Health Act, 2017 therefore contemplates that those who are between the age of 15 to 49 years have access to reproductive health services. Society’s attitudes on the issue of adolescent access to reproductive health rights has however remained to be one of the biggest challenges facing adolescent access to reproductive health rights in Kenya. Most parents for instance are not usually happy that their adolescent children are on contraceptives despite having the knowledge that such children are sexually active. Myths on the negative impacts of using contraceptive methods e.g. implants have also not made the situation any better (KTN News Kenya , 2020). This calls for civil education on the part of adolescents on how to protect themselves from the risk of catching an unplanned pregnancy, parents on the importance of allowing their children to make use of available contraception methods as well as debunking myths about the use of contraceptives.
Medical service providers also ought to be trained and sensitized against the dangers of ‘playing God’ in ensuring access to reproductive health services for adolescents. For instance, it is not the place of a doctor to tell any young person that ‘you are too young to get contraceptives’ or ‘too young to be sexually active’ or even doctors who stoop so low as to become peddlers of the myths about contraceptives. The mandate of the doctor ought to be acting in the best interests of a seeker of reproductive health care services.
Unless deliberate effort is made to ensure that adolescents access reproductive health care services, Article 43 (1) (a) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 as well as Section 6 (1) (a) of the Health Act, 2017 will continue to be dreams and wishes that cannot be translated to reality.
What are your views on adolescent having access to (disclaimer) Reproductive Health Services?
Were Kadogo Immaculate a current student at the Advocates Training Program (ATP) at the Kenya School of Law (KSL).