“I want to talk about female candidates who sat for the examinations while in hospitals either after giving birth or while expecting. As I celebrate you I also want to castigate our today parents in the most severe terms possible………”
These were the words of Professor George Magoha, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for education when he presented the results of the 2020 form four examinations results on May 10th, 2021.
The Professor’s comments diminished what was otherwise a positive statement acknowledging the right to education for all children. His words included a later comment implying that girls of his or earlier generation were “better behaved” due to better parenting that prevented teenage pregnancies, castigating pregnant girls as ‘moral failures’.
This perception is common in Kenya, often shared publicly not knowing that it contributes to shaming, stigmatization, and isolation of adolescent girls who have early pregnancies. Such an attitude undermines girls’ rights to education.
Despite being brilliant in her academics, Harriet is now a housemaid in Rongai on the outskirts of Nairobi, having left her infant baby to be taken care of by her brother’s wife. Every month she has to send money to her sister-in-law to cater for the upbringing of the child.
“I didn’t go back to school, because I didn’t have anyone to give me advice,” “Harriet” (not her real name) told BHESP. “I wish someone would have come to talk to me about school and encourage me to return after giving birth.
Harriet, like thousands of teenage girls across Kenya, dropped out of school after she had her child. Her brother took her in when she left home after her mother, instead of protecting her, told her to hide the identity of the father of her child because he was their relative.
Her brother’s home was next to a school. She watched longingly as girls arrived at school at dawn while she did her chores, played in the field while she cooked lunch, and left in the afternoon as she prepared dinner. The sound of the school bell ringing across the valley at the end of each lesson, a constant reminder of a life that had already slipped away from her.
Like many African countries, Kenya has made a commitment to tackle exclusion in education, yet the government’s piecemeal approach to teenage pregnancies threatens its promises for girls’ education. Many adolescent mothers are out of school because they are blocked from returning or aren’t getting the support they need to return. President Uhuru Kenyatta directed that pregnant schoolgirls should be registered to ensure they receive ante-natal care but has yet to speak publicly about helping them stay in school.
During the Covid-19 crisis, as schools shut down, Kenyan media reported widely concerns that lockdown conditions contributed to teenage pregnancy. BHESP spoke about the unimaginable sexual violence and exploitation girls faced at the beginning of the lockdown and curfew, but the government did not address girls’ safety during this period.
While the problem of education and teen pregnancies may have been worsened by the government’s closure of schools to curb the spread of coronavirus, it is not a new problem in Kenya. In 2019, around 100 girls in one county alone sat for their final exams while pregnant, while some gave birth during the exam period. Such accounts display remarkable determination by the girls to stay in school, but they’re emblematic of the Kenyan government’s failures toward children, by not addressing education and teen pregnancies.
BHESP Executive Director Peninah Mwangi says preventing teenage pregnancies is an important component of any education program by a serious education system. “Age-appropriate, accurate sex education based on science as opposed to myths can arm children and adolescents with the information they need to make decisions about their own bodies and can empower children to speak up when they’re in harm’s way,” said Ms. Mwangi.
“Kenya should ensure that pregnant girls and adolescent mothers who are students return to school after giving birth or when they are ready. Girls need assurance from the government through a public directive that their right to education is guaranteed, no matter if they’re pregnant. It means that schools should be tasked with following up with families to make sure the girls are protected and that families are encouraged to let them return to school. This would be a chance to protect the many girls like Harriet, whose right to education must be protected zealously,” added Ms. Mwangi.