Shocking statistics on teen motherhood in Meru sparks action

Elizabeth Kailemia

Meru Woman Rep Elizabeth Kailemia addresses journalists at Mwerongondu Primary School in Igembe North on Friday last week during a community education forum on the teenage pregnancies crisis in the county.

Photo credit: Gitonga Marete| Nation Media Group

When Janet Kananu* got pregnant at the age of 17 while in Form Three, she did not know how to break the news to her widowed mother.

She waited until the pregnancy was visible, with her mother having suspected that all was not well. The mother of four children, whose husband died while Kananu was just three years old, was so shocked that she did not even reprimand her.

“When the man who used to work as a guard learnt that I was pregnant, he vanished and cut off all communication, leaving me suffering with my pregnancy,” Kananu said at her home in Mwerongondu village in Igembe North, Meru County.

She gave birth to bouncing twins – a boy and a girl – ushering in a phase of her life characterised by anguish, fear and anxiety.  Despite the misfortune, Kananu sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination and obtained grade C plain.

Today, she ekes out a living doing menial jobs in Laare town where she has rented a room. And she fears men.

Talking to several other girls who fell pregnant in Igembe North Sub-county, one discovers that Kananu is part of a statistic that has shocked the nation.

A National Syndemic Diseases Control Council (NSDCC) survey shows that, between January and May this year, out of 15,389 people who sought antenatal services in Meru, 3,998 were teenagers aged between 10 and 19 years, representing 26 per cent, the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the country.

Over the past seven years, about four in every 10 pregnancies at first antenatal clinic was an adolescent aged 10-19.

NSDCC Eastern Regional Coordinator Julius Koome said the teenage pregnancy numbers started rising before and during the Covid-19 pandemic and have never gone down.

While in 2016 the number of girls was 9,414 out of 35,068 representing 27 per cent, in 2017 it rose to 13,346 out of 32,238, or 41 per cent. In 2018 the figure further rose to 15,346, representing 45 per cent of the total 35,919 pregnancies. But it is the number of pregnant girls aged 14 and below that sparked concern. During Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of girls between 10 and 14 years who fell pregnant rose to 1,341 from 473 in 2019, while in 2021 the figure fell slightly to 1,113.

While last year the number of girls aged 10-19 who fell pregnant was 10,561 out of 34,808, representing 30 per cent, this year’s January to May data indicate that if the trend is not checked, the figures are likely to hit over 50 per cent.

According to the survey, 10 out of the 45 wards account for 53 per cent of all adolescent pregnancies reported in 2022. They are Amwathi (Igembe North), Kangeta (Igembe Central), Mikinduri (Tigania East), Maua (Igembe South), Muthara (Tigania East), Ntunene (Igembe North) Mwanganthia and Abogeta East (both in Imenti Central) and Municipality (Imenti North).

Alarmed by the statistics, the NSDCC, county woman rep Elizabeth Kailemia and other stakeholders have launched programmes to reverse the trend.

Ms Kailemia says some of the factors that have contributed to the high rate of teenage pregnancies especially in Igembe North include poverty, negligence by parents and female circumcision.

“Once girls have been circumcised they are encouraged to seek suitors for marriage. We want the authorities to be ruthless on men who engage in sex with underage girls,” Ms Kailemia said, adding that trade in miraa is also to blame.

“Our research has also shown that the men responsible for the pregnancies are teenagers. These are young boys who engage in miraa trade and lure vulnerable girls into sex since they have money. Our sensitization campaigns are also targeting these young men,” she said, adding that they are also giving sanitary pads to girls to prevent them from seeking favours from men.  Mr Koome said NSDCC would step up community education campaigns.

“These girls are children and we are shocked they are engaging in sex at that age. We will not allow this to continue and the council will take necessary measures to stop it,” he said.