About two months ago, the high rate of teenage pregnancies made news headlines in the country. Expectedly, a national debate has ensued about who is to blame for the problem and what the possible solutions are. The blame has been placed on lowered moral standard within the society, poor parenting, “western entertainment” and a lack of reproductive health education amongst adolescents. The way the debates and discussions are being conducted would make one think that this is a new problem that has just creeped into our communities and has caught us pants down.
Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that, the issue of teenage pregnancies has been on going and the government has failed to properly address it. Further, most of society prefers to play the blame game rather than come up with a sustainable solution. We have sadly chosen to bury our heads in the sand about the issue, for many it is probably because the problem has not knocked on their door neither do they know anyone who has suffered this fate.
As we throw the blame around, teenage girls continue to suffer and have their lives drastically change. We need to realize the need to adopt new techniques of tackling the problem. The need to address reproductive health for women and girls is real. Teenage girls are disproportionately affected compared to their male counterparts. When reproductive health is not regarded as a right and part of the health care system and is limited to what would be considered as ‘moral’, girls continue to have a challenge in navigating their lives.
In some cases, these girls’ academic outcomes are affected as they lose out on education. Due to stigma and their new roles as mothers, very few go on to pursue tertiary education. This leaves the girls unable to compete equally with their male counterparts whose lives go on as if nothing happened, in turn they cannot contribute towards economic development in society and keep revolving in the cycle of poverty.
We need to rethink how to address the issue and actively pursue it. We cannot continue to employ the same tactics and expect different results. The Reproductive Healthcare Bill sponsored by Hon. Susan Kihika suggests that adolescent friendly reproductive health education, information and services- with parental consent- be made available. The bill provides for vocational training, mentorship programs, spiritual and moral guidance, and counselling on abstinence, consequences of unsafe abortion, HIV, and substance use. It also mandates the government to integrate age-appropriate information on reproductive health into the education syllabus. This could potentially be a solution to teenage pregnancies as well as other reproductive health issues that are unique to girls because the current methods being utilized do not seem to be working effectively. The bill has been severely hammered down by various groups over the past two weeks on grounds that it is against the African culture and our religious beliefs. While we should not abandon our cultural and religious beliefs, we need to be honest with ourselves and make decisions that are in the best interest of our children. Would we rather than be set in our ways and continue to watch our daughters suffer?
The Reproductive Healthcare Bill has been accused of encouraging teenage sex because it provides for access to reproductive health services for adolescent. This is a misinterpretation of the bill. Having adolescent friendly reproductive health information should not be considered as weakening the moral fiber in society, rather, it should be deemed as empowering adolescents to make informed decisions.
The longer we take to sufficiently address the issue, the more we create the risk of these teenagers facing other reproductive health problems such as unsafe abortions which could be fatal. Statistics indicate that an average of seven women and girls die each day from unsafe abortions.
Instead of only complaining and finding who to blame, all stakeholders, should work together towards developing workable solutions. There is need for collective responsibility. We do no good by watering down proposals and giving no suggestions. As much as NGOs and other stakeholders may try to work towards reducing teenage pregnancies, without government buy in, not much can be achieved. The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 provides that everyone has the right to the highest standard of health including reproductive health. For this reason alone, the government owes a duty to the young girls to ensure that their reproductive health is properly catered to.