“He told me he loved me, and I believed him,” says Purity Bahati. Little did she know that two years later, her world would literally turn upside down.
She began a sexual relationship with her boyfriend while a pupil in one of the public schools in Mnarani, Kilifi County. He was 28 years old. She was 15. Purity became pregnant by the time she was celebrating her 17th birthday, forcing her to drop out of school. “My parents were so furious with me, and they kicked me out of home,” she says while forcing a smile, unsuccessfully.
The boyfriend reluctantly allowed her to move in with him in his small Makuti-thatched hut located a few meters away from his parent’s house. And just like that - without fanfare or any cinderella esque celebrations - Purity was married. Now aged 19, and a mother of two, she looks confused and uncertain of her future.
“To be honest, this is not the way I envisioned my life would turn out,” she says. With no formal education, and very minimal life skills, Purity’s life has been reduced to playing mother and housewife at age 19. “I don’t work. Who would give me a job, anyway?” she says thoughtfully.
Purity spends her days looking after her children, while her husband, now aged 30, works as a casual laborer in Mnarani village.
Hardly 50 yards away from Purity’s Makuti-thatched hut is Naomi Kitsao, aged 18. She is also a mother of two, and married to a 19 year old. Her story has lots of resemblance to Purity. As a matter of fact, they used to be best friends in school.
“When Purity got a boyfriend while we were in school, we used to admire her,” says Naomi. “Her boyfriend used to buy her gifts and treat her so well, most girls in school desperately wanted to be like her,” says Naomi. Under peer pressure, Naomi, then 14 years began having multiple sexual relations with a number of boys in and out of school. She admits not having any knowledge or information about adolescent sexual reproductive health.
“It was fun and cool to have boys dying to have you. It made one feel wanted, loved and appreciated,” says Naomi. She says that the agreed perception among her peers then was that at their age, it was impossible for one to get pregnant or contract HIV/AIDS.
“It was a general belief and an accepted fact that getting pregnant or contracting HIV/AIDS was for old women or prostitutes, and not for young girls,” she adds.
By the time Naomi was expecting her second child, she had joined a tailoring college in Kilifi town, but dropped out almost immediately for lack of money. Now, like Purity, she is a fulltime houseful with little, or no aspirations about her future, except holding unto the thread of hope that her unemployed 19 year old husband will land a job at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IIEBC) during this year's general election.
Why so many teen mums?
Incidentally, Purity and Naomi’s story is a representation of so many teenage mothers in Kilifi County, and by extension across Kenya. In Kilifi, for instance, the Kenya Demographic Health Survey Report (KDHS 2014) indicates that 19 percent of girls aged 15-19 have had a live birth, while 3 percent are pregnant with their first child. Nationally, approximately one in every five teenage girls between the ages of 15-19 have begun child bearing.
Additionally, data from past studies show that about 13,000 girls drop out of school each year in Kenya due to pregnancy.
Well, to understand, what’s going on with our adolescent girls, its important to acknowledge the fact that every young person will one day have life-changing decisions to make about their sexual and reproductive health. Yet research shows that the majority of adolescents, such as Purity and Naomi lack the knowledge required to make those decisions responsibly, leaving them vulnerable to coercion, sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.
It’s a scenario replicating itself everyday in developing countries, where it’s estimated that 20,000 girls under age 18 give birth, which amounts to 7.3 million births a year. And if all pregnancies are included, the number of adolescent pregnancies is much higher.
Unfortunately, as in the case of Purity and Naomi, when a girl becomes pregnant, her life can change radically. Her education may end and her job prospects diminish. She becomes more vulnerable to poverty and exclusion, and her health often suffers.
Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
The way forward
Many countries, including Kenya, are working to prevent adolescent pregnancy. Unfortunately, these efforts often focus on changing the behaviour of girls rather than addressing the underlying drivers of adolescent pregnancy. Such drivers include gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence and coercion, child marriage, social pressures, exclusion from educational and job opportunities, and negative attitudes about girls. Many efforts also neglect to account for the role of boys and men.
A more holistic approach is therefore required to support girls in avoiding early pregnancy. It’s for this reason that UNFPA works with partners, including governments, civil society, religious groups and youth-led organizations, to extend access to sexual and reproductive health information, counseling and services to all young people.
For example, in Kilifi, UNFPA working with the County Government and the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH Kenya) have developed a strategy on reducing adolescent pregnancies, investing in girl’s education, involving partners at all levels, from community members to schools and young people themselves.
UNFPA also works within communities to end child marriage, sexual violence and coercion, build gender-equitable societies by empowering girls and engaging men and boys - measures which are reducing adolescent pregnancies and supporting girls who become pregnant to return to school and reach their full potential.
For Purity and Naomi, they have been empowered by UNFPA to access sexual and reproductive health information and services, including the use of family planning methods, and the choice to plan the number, optimal timing and appropriate spacing of their children and to prevent unplanned pregnancies. They are now working in their community to raise awareness about teenage pregnancy, and the importance of accessing adolescent sexual reproduction health information and services.
At UNFPA, it’s our strong believe that when a teenage girl has the power, the means and the information to make her own decisions in life, she is more likely to overcome obstacles that stand between her and a healthy, productive future. This will benefit her, her family and her community.
Written by Douglas Waudo, Communications Analyst, UNFPA Kenya.