Two weeks ago in Bungoma County, twenty girls from Chelebei Secondary Schoolgirls in Mt Elgon were confirmed pregnant after a routine check by the school when they returned from the December holidays.
Their deputy principal, David Emachar, blamed the girls’ parents for not closely monitoring their children’s activities and whereabouts during the holidays, saying “we have tried our best through guidance and counselling sessions and it is unfortunate that such still occur. We ask the parents to come and support our efforts by monitoring the children’s movements.”
Parents, on the other hand, blamed the school for letting the girls down. They felt that since they were busy working hard so as to fend for their families, the school should have taken a more active role in preventing this occurrence. This shows how these poor girls’ lives are affected by the intersection of multiple problems, such as poverty (which leaves their parents unable to spend as much time as they would like monitoring their children), lack of reproductive health education (our legislators continue to hold back the Reproductive Health Bill from becoming law, yet it would ensure children such as these at least understand their bodies, that chances of them being taken advantage of by adults are reduced, and that when disasters such as this one occur, they can receive the best care), and perhaps worst of all, being a girl child in Kenya and having to face sexism from every possible source in their lives.
One of the residents interviewed said that these girls typically had to walk long distances to and from school, and they get waylaid by boys from neighbouring schools and areas. Many parties agreed that such cases would be fewer if the schools had dormitories. The deputy principal added “We are shocked by this incident, it has proved to be very much expensive to us because we are forced to offer guiding and counseling sessions and also inviting different speakers to talk to them so that they can accept their status and carry on with their education.” As if it is a burden to offer sex education and/or guidance and counselling to these girls. This feels like victim blaming at its worst.
What we have here is a failure to recognize this for what it is: sexual abuse of minors. The fact that the girls have to be kept at school to be safe from other (male) members of their societies is saddening. That the onus is on them, as children, to be “guided and counselled” out of having sex with boys/men from their societies, as opposed to strongly warning these boys/men against statutorily raping these girls (if they are minors, which they likely are, they cannot consent, and this automatically makes it statutory rape as opposed to sex), is even more so.
Just this week, it was reported that five school girls in Migori County had been impregnated by boda boda drivers. One of the pregnant girls, who is only 14 years old, said that since she was under the care of her relative (who is a boda boda driver), she had no choice but to follow him to the sugar plantation every afternoon. Many of the girls wanted to drop out due to being ridiculed by their fellow students, and other villagers. This shows the culture of victim blaming we have perfected in Kenya. It also shows that these people are desensitized, do not consider what happened as rape (most times, these girls have no power in these situations), and somehow think of these girls as adults as opposed to children who deserve to be taken care of by everyone in their community.
The 2015 National Adolescent and Youth preliminary report found that teachers and boda boda drivers were mostly to blame for early pregnancy cases, which then result in school drop-outs and early marriages. Other reasons include unsafe sexual behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and parental negligence.
The survey that informed the report found that teenage pregnancies are linked to level of education, with a majority (36%) of teenage mothers aged between 15 and 19 (either mothers or pregnant with their first child) having only completed primary school. 33% had no education at all, 19% had not even completed primary school, and only 12% had completed secondary school. This is a vicious cycle that ensures that this continues to happen, because these women are likely to raise these children in poverty, and girls coming from such homes will likely fall prey to the same kind of sexual abuse their mothers did.
Lack of reproductive health education was pointed out as a key reason for these pregnancies, alongside lack of community engagement. The report says that “Teenage mothers face a greater risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. The young mothers are prone to abort, which can also lead to death. They are also likely to suffer from poor mental and general health, considering the stress they undergo.”
It is time we stopped lying to ourselves using anecdotes that the girl child in Kenya is well off, or as some would say, “being prioritized in favour of the boy child,” who does not face challenges of the same magnitude. One key to ending the cycle of poverty in Kenya is putting an end to the perpetuation of sexual abuse against young girls, ensuring they receive a good education and have a shot at bettering their lives, and the lives of those around them.
As Barack Obama said, “They are issues of right or wrong in any culture. But they are also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports centre: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”