What you need to know:
- Girls in Taita Taveta County have been victims of early marriages, teen pregnancies and gender-based violence.
- To change the narrative, Sauti Ya Wanawake organisation in partnership with ActionAid, has started a program to empower more than 300 young mothers in Kishushe.
- Many parents are often in denial about their children being sexually active as most families in the county view it as a taboo subject.
Grace (not her real name) was only 16 when she got pregnant early this year.
“I wept when I confirmed that I was pregnant. My boyfriend told me to terminate it and he stopped answering my calls immediately after I declined his advice," she narrates.
Grace is rocking her three-week-old baby to sleep as she narrates her life as a young mother from their tiny room in Gaza slums in the outskirts of Voi town in Taita Taveta County.
She got pregnant while in Form One. The pregnancy forced her to drop out of school. Her mother was furious.
“I am yet to resume school because I just had a baby and I have to take care of him full time,” she says.
She observes that the worst moments are when she has to beg for money to take care of her new-born. Her jobless mother is struggling to look for menial jobs to feed her and her siblings. She cannot afford to stress her further.
Luckily for her, she has not experienced any shame or stigma from friends or neighbours. They have instead encouraged her not to lose hope in life.
"I sometimes ask for money from my uncles and my grandmother. My neighbours and friends also visit me with baby stuff," she says.
Although she regrets getting pregnant early, she hopes to go back to school once she gets someone to take care of her child.
"It is the worst mistake I made but I have learnt my lesson. I want to rectify the mistake because I want to be a role model to my younger siblings," she observes.
In Kishushe Village in Wundanyi Sub-county, we meet Mary. Her mother noticed changes in her body last year and confronted her, threatening to kick her out of their house.
“I'm still not in good terms with my mother because she feels that I failed to heed her advice and ruined my life. She is helping me yes, but I feel that I disappointed her because she had high hopes that I would one day help my siblings," she says.
The 15-year-old tells nation.africa that she was in Form Three when she got pregnant.
And just like in Grace's case, she says the man who defiled her never took responsibility for the new-born and no action has been taken against him.
She was shamed and stigmatised, and her own family disowned her, she says. She fell into distress and even contemplated suicide.
"The pregnancy disrupted my life, robbed me of my childhood and my future. My life changed for the worse and I went into depression but things are better now," she says.
Her friends now avoid her and the community has shunned her, branding her a bad girl. She still depends on her mother, who does menial jobs, to provide her basic needs and that of her six-month-old baby.
Rebuild her life
“Parents have warned their children not to speak to me because I will influence them negatively. Nowadays, I stay in the house with my baby alone. I get out only when I want to get something from the shop. It is so depressing,” she says.
A few kilometres from Mary's home, another girl, Wakesho* has started her journey to rebuild her life after getting her first baby at the age of 13.
When she got pregnant, she ran away from home and went to Nairobi to work as a house help.
“I disappointed my family, I brought shame to them,” she says.
Life became unbearable after she delivered her baby and she decided to elope with a man thrice her age.
She was later introduced to a local organisation that has helped her start an income-generating business and offered to counsel her.
Wakesho, now 18 and a mother of two, is set to sit for her exam in December this year, at the Kishushe Vocational Training Centre where she is studying tailoring.
“I have a sewing machine, a kitchen garden and I am also rearing chicken to supplement my husband's income," she says.
Many parents are often in denial about their children being sexually active as most families in Taita Taveta County view it as a taboo subject.
Recent statistics from the Kenya Health Information Management System shows that more than 1,929 teen pregnancies were recorded between January and August this year.
Last year, when schools were closed in March to contain the spread of Covid-19, more than 1,400 teenagers became pregnant.
Girls in the county have been victims of early marriages, teen pregnancies and gender-based violence.
To change the narrative, Sauti Ya Wanawake organisation in partnership with ActionAid, has started a program to empower more than 300 young mothers in Kishushe.
Through the initiative dubbed 'Tackling barrier to education in Kishushe', the program offers practical solutions to help young mothers aged 12-25 years, find their footing in life. Twelve support groups have been formed to train the girls on how to make money through small businesses to take care of their children.
Through the groups, they also get psychosocial support and share their experiences.
Kishushe Coordinator Mercy Mwakio, says 46 girls have already enrolled in a local vocational training centre to get skills.
"The girls prefer getting skills than going back to secondary school. We also give them grants to start businesses of their choice," she says.
She says the Covid-19 pandemic, drought and poverty, are among the challenges currently facing the girls in the area.
“We run projects on food security, reproductive health and financial literacy as interventions to improve their livelihoods," she says.
The organisation also runs sensitisation programs within the local community on the benefits of protecting underage girls from early pregnancies.
In Voi, Fatuma Salim a human rights activist, says some girls who got pregnant in the sub-county are yet to resume school.
Through Sisi kwa Sisi initiative, Ms Salim and her friends offer psychological support to the girls and help them start livelihood initiatives to get income.
"The men take advantage of these girls’ poor background to exploit them sexually. They offer them money or other favours in exchange for sex and that is why we empower them to not fall prey," she says.
She says the girls are instrumental in sensitising others to concentrate on their studies instead of engaging in early sex.
The alarming cases of pregnancies come after the county Department of Health announced a shortage of condoms and anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) in the county.
County Executive for Health John Mwakima said the shortage started after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking during a stakeholders meeting in Voi, he said the increasing number of unintended pregnancies among young girls in the county has worsened teenagers' vulnerabilities to contracting HIV.
Data from National Aids Control Council (NACC) shows that youth aged 15-26 contribute 42 per cent of the total number of new HIV infections in the country.
Mr Mwakima said the condom shortage could be linked to the high number of pregnancies being reported in the county.
"Last year, many teenagers who were out of school due to Covid-19 pandemic became pregnant, thereby predisposing themselves to HIV/Aids. Thousands of these girls became vulnerable to infection. We want to bring partners on board to ensure that we get enough condoms and ARVs to mitigate the situation," he said.
County Youth director Wallace Mwaluma said more health programs will be rolled out to ensure high-risk groups are well-covered. He noted that the increase in early pregnancies was an indicator that more effort was needed across the county to tame the menace.
“We will continue investing in programs by rolling out more initiatives in all four sub-counties," he said.
The Youth and Gender department is working with stakeholders to create a tool to tackle cases of rape and defilement in the county.
The county also launched a sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) policy, which will help in dealing with persistent biased socio-cultural attitudes, beliefs and behaviour that perpetuate negative stereotypes, discrimination and gender inequality in the county.