Meru takes war on teen pregnancies to the classroom

Mount Kenya Trust Adolescence Reproductive Health Project Manager Ketty Gitonga,  during a session at Maua Primary School in Meru. The organisation is running a program to sensitise teens on reproductive health.

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Of the 14,669 teenage pregnancies reported in Meru County in 2020, seven were from one school.
  • Teenage pregnancies in Meru reached alarming levels in 2018, when young mothers accounted for 45 per cent of all deliveries in the county.
  • Several stakeholders have now decided to take this war to the classroom, literally, to tackle the vice that is ravaging the county.

Of the 14,669 teenage pregnancies reported in Meru County in 2020, seven were from one school - Amwari Mixed Day Secondary School in Tigania West.

The seven are yet to resume their studies since then, as motherhood takes a toll on them.

Teenage pregnancies in Meru reached alarming levels in 2018, when young mothers accounted for 45 per cent of all deliveries in the county.

So rampant have the cases been that last April, a group of pastors from Athwana in Tigania West, wrote a protest letter to the Deputy County Commissioner after more than 10 girls from the area dropped out of school due to pregnancies.

Jenny* (not her real name), who was in Form One in 2020, did not expect that her relationship with a young man, would force her out of school.

“When I discovered I was pregnant, I had to stay at home, hoping to resume learning when the baby is grown. The father has not shown interest in taking responsibility. I rely on my mother for support,” she says.

“No one has ever talked to me about sex and its consequences,” she adds.

Several stakeholders have now decided to take this war to the classroom, literally, to tackle the vice that is ravaging the county.

Sexual debut

Schools have come up with strategies that include sustained sensitization of students through peer counsellors, teachers, external mentors, health officials, clergy as well as parents.

The Kenya Adolescent Reproductive Health Curriculum seeks to delay sexual debut among teenagers by helping them manage sexual feelings as they enter the adolescent stage.

Project Manager at Mt Kenya Trust Adolescence Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, Ketty Gitonga, says ignorance, peer pressure, culture and poverty are key contributors to the high number of teenage pregnancies.

Together with Meru County health department, they have kicked off school programmes on reproductive health targeting teens.

“We realised that many teenagers are clueless even about the changes in their bodies. Culture has made talking about sex a taboo, leaving the young girls to their own device. Our intention is to increase awareness that leads to better decision-making in relationships,” Ms Gitonga says.

The programme, she observes, includes training teachers to be counsellors, and pupils to become peer mentors in areas of values, adolescence, reproduction myths, healthy relationships, sexuality, decision making and peer pressure among others.

Meru County Reproductive Health Director Daniel Kimaita during an interview with Nation. Africa. He says the biggest challenge in regards to teenage pregnancies is that many parents have abdicated their role.

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

“The biggest challenge is that many parents have abdicated their role, leaving it to teachers. Where there is no sustainable guidance and counselling in schools, the youth learn the hard way,” Meru Reproductive Health Director Daniel Kimaita says.

Community Initiative for Rural Development Coordinator, Margaret Ikiara, who runs a teen mothers programme in Tigania, says they emphasise self-worth when training teenagers.

“We use holiday camps to train the young people on their sexuality. We have discovered that ignorance, parental neglect and poverty, contribute a lot to teen pregnancies. Girls who can’t afford sanitary pads find themselves relying on rogue men who give them money in exchange of sex,” Ms Ikiara says.

She explains that the organisation also engages parents and sensitises them on prioritising teaching their children on sexuality.

Amwari Secondary School Principal Samuel Rinkanya, says when the number of pregnancies shot up, they moved fast to contain the trend.

“We have enhanced guidance and counselling. We also have peer counsellors who help shape the narrative on healthy relationships. We are working with stakeholders and there is an impact because only one case was recorded last year,” Mr Rinkanya observes.

At Maua Primary School, about 40 kilometres north of Amwari Secondary School, Grade Five and Six pupils are gathered in a room while Grade Seven and Eight learners are in separate classrooms for reproductive health talks.

Among the speakers are peer counsellors, a teacher, health officials from Meru County government and Mt Kenya Trust.

“I want you, my fellow girls, to stand firm like an elephant. When someone tells you to have sex, say no,” Fiona Mwende, a Grade Five peer counsellor tells her schoolmates.

Chris Mutharimi, a Grade Six peer counsellor says the sessions have guided them on life issues.

“If you have knowledge and wisdom, you can make good decisions,” Mutharimi tells the class.

Dorothy Mwendwa, a guidance and counseling teacher at Maua Primary School in Meru. The school has monthly counselling sessions where pupils are guided on relationships.

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

Dorothy Mwendwa, a teacher in charge of guidance and counselling, says four pupils at the school got pregnant in 2020.

“Every week, we have a morning session where peer mentors address their colleagues on various topics. We also have a guidance and counselling session every month, where teachers meet the pupils in groups. Pupils are now opening up and there is transformation in behaviour. We have not had any other pregnancy since then,” Ms Mwendwa says.

She explains that the pupils are grouped into three teams assigned to male and female teachers who take them through select topics.

“We now have more pupils coming forward to seek answers when they have issues,” the teacher adds.

The Amwari Secondary School principal says their students are grouped into ‘families’ with teachers assigned to each to offer guidance.

He, however, says the buck stops with parents who need to ensure their children are well guided on sexuality.

“While we are trying to play our role as a school, all stakeholders including parents, administrators, the media and the church, must keep children on their toes. We grew up being told that babies are bought in the market. This myth cannot hold in this generation and parents must keep their children informed,” Mr Rinkanya says.

The National Council for Population and Development (NCPD), has also been training teachers and parents in the county on how to help contain teenage pregnancies.

Abortions

Data from the Meru health department indicates that 3,475 abortion cases were reported in various hospitals between January and October 2021 compared to 2,718 cases in 2020

NCPD Coordinator in Eastern North region, Victoria Mutiso, recently said they were particularly concerned about the high number of teen pregnancies and abortions in Meru.

"We are training teachers and parents who can help inculcate values in children. We also want parents to be actively involved in monitoring their children to keep the cases in check," Ms Mutiso said.

Mr Kimaita notes that teenage pregnancies come with other consequences.

“We have high HIV infections among the young people and poses a risk of cervical cancer. Child malnutrition is also a possibility as most teenage mothers are unable to take care of the babies. It also sustains the cycle of poverty in families,” Mr Kimaita explains.

Meru recorded 635 new HIV infections in 2021, with 205 of these being people aged between 15 and 24 years. Another 91 new infections were among residents aged between 10 and 19 years.

Mr Kimaita calls for enhanced conversations on reproductive health issues through establishment of more youth-friendly centres, as well as educational programmes.

Teen pregnancies account for 38 per cent of all deliveries in Meru, which means 38 out of every 100 mothers are below the age of 19.

According to the Ministry of Health, Kenya has the third highest teenage pregnancies in the world with one in every five women aged 15 to 19 years, being mothers or pregnant with their first child.

The story is written through support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR)

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