Eighteen-year-old Josephine, not her real name, strolls lazily into her small house in Kangemi. Josephine, who is five months pregnant, has been living here with her 26-year-old husband for the past six months.
She has been married since 2019 and is on her fourth pregnancy. She relocated to Nairobi from Vihiga at the beginning of this year.
The first time she got pregnant she was 13 years old. “I dropped out of school in 2015, when I was in Form Three, because I was pregnant,” she tells HealthyNation.
Not wanting her to keep the baby at such a young age, her grandmother made her abort. “She is a traditional midwife. She forced me to drink some concoction. I did not know what it was. That is how I lost the pregnancy,” she says.
Frustrated by her grandmother’s action, she went on a drinking spree and a few months later she was pregnant again. “My parents forced me to abort when I was three months pregnant. They talked to my aunt, who forced me to abort my baby,” says the 18-year-old. “She came to the school, lied to the principal that I was sick and took me to a hospital. I did not know what we were going to do there. Upon arrival, the doctor injected me with some drug. My stomach started aching and I lost the baby,” she recalls.
The shame of being pregnant twice and having to abort both times was too much and she finally dropped out of school. “There was a teacher I used to look up to and I had embarrassed her. I could not go back to school,” she says.
She felt neglected and heartbroken. Despite her parents being alive, she was forced to live with her grandmother upcountry. “My parents refused to pick my calls and stopped talking to me altogether. I felt like they deserted me,” she says.
PUT ON CONTRACEPTIVES
Years after dropping out of school, she became pregnant again in 2019 and just like previous times, she was forced to abort the pregnancy at four months. This time around her parents used her friends to get her to abort. Her friends lied to her a certain drug would protect the baby. “I was given a tablet and after swallowing it, the pregnancy was terminated,” she explains.
Her mother decided enough was enough and put her on contraceptives in September 2019. When her grandmother found out, she had the Norplant implant removed in January this year.
Now, she is pregnant and wants to do things differently. Her dream is to own a salon. “I felt if I continued living upcountry, my womb and my ovaries would be destroyed because of all the abortions. That is why I decided to come to Nairobi,” she says.
But, she will not forget what she has been through. “Sometimes I cry when I remember what they did to me. My cousins have children and I am the only one without a child. I don’t know what they think of me,” she says.
Josephine, who only has two friends in Nairobi, however, longs to have a relationship with her parents. “I have forgiven them and my grandmother as well. They have forgiven me too,” she says.
Hers is just one of thousands of such stories in the country. Stories of teenagers who become pregnant and either keep the babies or terminate the pregnancies.
Like Josephine, *Emma found herself in a tight spot when she got pregnant at 16. “I did my KCPE examination in 2018. By then, he was some four months old,” she says of her son.
Emma was in a relationship with a boy who impregnated her. “I only had one parent and I did not have many of the things I desired and I wanted to be like other girls,” says Emma, who was brought up by her father.
She lives in Kangemi, having moved to Nairobi from Busia. Without a job and married to a casual labourer, Emma is barely able to meet the needs of her two-year-old son. “I have regretted getting pregnant. At one point, I even wanted to abort, but I never tried it,” she says.
The 18-year-old has a dream to be rich. She wants to own a salon, where she can also teach her peers hairdressing and cosmetic skills.
For *Sheila, the pregnancy came about at 17 as she looked for a way out of the hardships she was facing. The mother of a nine-month-old baby dropped out of school in 2017 after being “neglected and misused”.
Sheila and her sister lived with their abusive grandmother. “She was never home because she was always on business trips. We got used to living alone, sometimes without food,” she narrates.
The lack of food and school items pushed her into a relationship with a 40-year-old man, who she says provided for them. “He would give me money to buy sanitary pads, pay some school fees and provide for basic needs,” says the 18-year-old.
She was only in Class Six when she was introduced to sex. “I dropped out of school because of him. When my grandmother learnt about our relationship, she wanted us arrested. I felt it was unfair, so I ran away. I was in Class Seven and I never went back to school,” she recalls.
Sheila came to Nairobi from Malaba with the hopes of getting greener pastures. She got a job as a house help and it was during that time that she became pregnant. Unfortunately, the father of her baby deserted her after learning she was pregnant.
Just like Josephine and Emma, Sheila grew up without a mother’s love. “I rarely see my mother,” she shares pain written all over her face.
The last time she lived with her mother was in 2014. “I’m the first born in a family of seven. Some of my sisters are with their fathers, some with our grandmother, another one was adopted and two live with my mother and my step-father,” she says.
Sheila regrets dropping out of school and getting a baby at a young age. Just like the other two girls, she got enrolled to the Betty Adera Foundation and is learning hair and beauty skills.
DOES NOT KNOW FATHER
Kilometres away, in Dandora the story is no different.
*Jane is seven months pregnant. She does not know how she got pregnant. “When I found out I was pregnant I was shocked. The only relief I had was that my parents appreciated that I had finished high school,” says Jane, who got pregnant at 18.
She is among hundreds of pregnant girls from Dandora who attend clinic at Samaritan Hospital under the Mum Care programme.
From January, the programme has enrolled at least 300 girls below 19 years old from Dandora. Some 200 have delivered and 101 are on the waiting list.
Although many seek to be enrolled in the programme, registration stopped early June. The programme coordinator, Vincent Sakwa, tells HealthyNation the funding has been stopped. He suspects this is a result of financial constraints brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. HealthyNation saw a database with another 46 pregnant girls waiting to be enrolled to the programme. The girls get enrolled when they are between 24 and 26 weeks pregnant and in Dandora, Samaritan is one of three facilities offering such a service.
For years, the story of teen pregnancies has haunted Kenya. In 2015, to the shock of Kenyans, a 10-year-old pupil from Kericho delivered after being allegedly impregnated by her 60-year-old caregiver.
In 2012, a 12-year-old girl gave birth after being defiled by a 27-year-old neighbour. And in 2013, a 14-year-old from Bungoma gave birth to triplets after being impregnated by a 16-year-old boy.
Such is the pattern of teenage pregnancy in Kenya: Those who get pregnant after defilement, being impregnated by their peers or from unholy unions such as early marriages. The increasing number of adolescents below 14 years old, who are getting pregnant, may also indicate the age of sexual debut may be going down.
According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2008-2009, the median age of sexual debut was 18.2 years for women and 17.6 years for men.
Over the last few weeks, there has been public outcry in the country after some erroneous figures indicated teenage pregnancies had risen by unprecedented levels.
While the figures may have been false, they pointed to a problem, says Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony, the head of Gender and Youth desk at the Council of Governors.
“It is a disaster, it is a ticking time bomb that can easily be a very serious problem and a strain to the economy,” he says.
His remarks are reiterated by Betty Adera, the chief executive of Betty Adera Foundation, who says: “Teenage pregnancy is a challenge that has been with us for decades, but right now it has reached epic levels. If we do not all come up with solutions, then we are sitting on a time bomb.”
Mary Kariuki, a public health specialist and director at Samaritan Hospital, says most of the pregnant girls enrolled to their programme are either from poor backgrounds or are drug addicts, and conceive without knowing. “They need essentials like sanitary towels, which they cannot afford. Because of that, they are exposed to sex early. Some of them live with their jobless mothers,” she adds.
Kariuki blames some parents for introducing their children to prostitution without knowing.
Ebby Maresi, the in-charge at Samaritan Hospital, attributes the teen pregnancies to a parenting gap. As a midwife, she has handled numerous cases of girls who have tried to or have aborted, but developed complications in the process.
“They swallow some drugs to induce labour and some of them insert catheters in their birth canal, so that they can abort. They come here either bleeding or with very bad complications or infections,” she says.
A girl only needs Sh200 to Sh500 to procure an abortion in Dandora’s backstreet clinics.
Sakwa sees peer pressure as the main factor. “Sex has been hyped, but what these young ones do not understand is that it comes with responsibility,” says Sakwa, who is also a counsellor.
Most of the girls he has interviewed say they were impregnated by their peers, boys as young as those in Class Eight, “You see them jogging together in the morning. If you are keen, you will notice they jog in couples,” he says, adding that abstinence is an alien term to these teenagers.
The girls end up sleeping with so many men that when they finally get pregnant, they do not know who the father is. Some contract HIV in the process.
“There is also prostitution at a very early age around here. One only needs about Sh20 to get a girl,” says Sakwa. “The boys or men do different things for the girls like paying rent or buying food.”
Some of the girls have been neglected by their parents or relatives and lack information on how to protect themselves and with oversexualised television and online content, things may get worse, he warns.
Nairobi has the highest number of teenage pregnancies at 11,795 between January and May. The number rose from 11,410 during the same period in 2019.
Generally, however, teenage pregnancy numbers went down in the first five months of the year compared to the same period in 2019. A total of 151,433 cases have been reported against last year’s 175,488.
“Early marriage is also a problem especially in Mombasa, which leads to early pregnancy,” says Selina Githinji, Mombasa County coordinator for gender-based violence and adolescent health.
Campaigns against teenage pregnancy should not only focus on girls, but also target boys, she says.
According to Kigen Kipkorir, the United Nations Population Fund programme officer for adolescent sexual reproductive health in Kenya, most adolescents get to puberty without the necessary guidance from parents or school.
The pregnancies leave scars that in some cases will never heal.
Kariuki says: “What will become of the children they want to give birth to? How about those who got pregnant because they were sexually abused? There is also a possibility of HIV infection or other sexually transmitted diseases.”
The trauma, stress and stigma faced by teenage mothers can be hard to deal with.
And with school closure having been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are fears the situation will not improve.