The hidden ‘Triple Threat’ gripping Bungoma County

Pregnant schoolgirls in Bungoma on November 3. HIV/Aids, teen pregnancies and GBV are a growing concern in the county.

Photo credit: Jesse Chenge I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Alarming wave makes Bungoma County stand out and stakeholders are a worried lot.
  • Situation threatens to get out of hand if proper interventions are not initiated to protect schoolgirls, and their education and career dreams.

Located in the western part of Kenya, Bungoma County boasts a rich cultural heritage, including traditions like bullfighting, traditional song and dance, and the scenic geographical doting its landscape.

Amid this beauty, however, is a wave of the “Triple Threat” – the disturbing rise in child marriage, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and HIV infection among girls.

Of concern is the county’s sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) prevalence, which stands at 23 per cent, compared to national one of 13 per cent.

From January 2016 to July 2023, Bungoma recorded 9,089 cases of SGBV among girls aged 10–17, compared to 18,510 cases reported countrywide among the same age group over the same period of time.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 findings released early this year, affirm the numbers. It shows that Bungoma leads in the number of women who have experienced physical and sexual violence in the country at 62 per cent.

The county is also witnessing a surge in HIV infections among teenage girls with a total of 1, 679 girls aged 10-24 years contracting the virus between 2016 and July 2023.

Over the same period of time, a total of 508 HIV and Aids related deaths were recorded in the same age group. The HIV infection prevalence, however trails the national prevalence at 2.6 per cent against 4.5 per cent.

“Girls should return to school and boys should abstain from alcohol consumption. Lack of discipline among the youth is a major contributing factor; that is why we are determined to enforce discipline,” Bungoma County Police commander Francis Kooli tells Nation when we meet him at his office in Bungoma Town.

Bungoma County Police Commander Francis Kooli. He says they are determined to help end all forms of SGBV.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

Addressing this crisis requires concerted efforts from stakeholders.

Local leaders are now part of the team working to provide a solution. Deputy Governor Janepher Mbatiany describes the triple threat as a crisis that needs urgent intervention. She says high poverty and incest levels in some of the households are also to blame for the crisis.

“The patriarchal nature of the community, characterised by male dominance, is also to blame,” she adds.

The issue is further compounded by the long distance between schools and homes in some affected areas.

The deputy governor, for example, links the high teenage pregnancy in Mt Elgon to unsupervised domestic chores including fetching of firewood in the forests and trekking to fetch water or attend school.

“We have brought on board elders in a campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence. They hold a lot of sway in society, thus are crucial to helping fight the menace,” Ms Mbatiany says.

She adds that the Bungoma County Sexual Gender-Based Violence Bill is in the assembly and will help heighten the fight once adopted. Among the bill’s key highlights is the establishment of SGBV Sub-county coordination units that will engage stakeholders in the vice.

“The bill also makes provision for SGBV education and access to healthcare services and education for survivors. It also provides for safe shelters and funding of GBV issues,” she adds.

Other county initiatives include sensitisation programmes to equip young girls with information on reproductive health, GBV, HIV and Aids and teenage pregnancy.

The deputy governor decries low budgetary allocation for the gender department, which she says hampers efforts like fighting harmful practises including female genital mutilation, child marriage and teenage pregnancy.

The gender department has a budget of Sh6.5 million this financial year, money that Ms Mbatiany says they are seeking to increase.

“We are working to change the mindset of our leaders, in particular the members of the county assembly (MCAs) to understand the importance of having more budgetary allocation to the department,” she adds.

Bungoma Deputy Governor Jenepher Mabatiany in her office during an interview with the Voice on November 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Kamau Maichuhie | Nation Media Group

Bungoma is among the three counties benefitting from the ‘Let It Not Happen Again’ project by UN Women-Kenya and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with support from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, to prevent SGBV.

Anna Mutavati, the UN Women Kenya Country Representative, says that while the project’s initial focus was on preventing and responding to violence against women during electoral processes, the scope broadened to strengthening prevention and response efforts for SGBV.

Ms Mutavati reveals the project’s objective is to improve access to justice and empowering women leaders in peace building initiatives.

“By working with governments and civil society organisations, we have supported counties to develop and implement GBV policies. This includes advocating for greater budget allocations for GBV prevention and response.

“We have also built the capacity of stakeholders such as health, police, and judiciary professionals to offer high-quality services that respond to the needs of GBV survivors.

“We have also supported survivors in accessing legal, health, counselling, and shelter services; and improved coordination among stakeholders working in prevention and response to GBV,” Ms Mutavati tells Nation.Africa.

The UN Women boss is happy the project has contributed to ending impunity by encouraging community dialogues to reject harmful practices and social norms that condone GBV. It has also built the capacity of the system to deliver justice for survivors in time.

And as the world continues to observe the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, Ms Mutavati is calling for increased long-term, sustainable investments from national and county government, private sector, foundations, and other donors to women’s rights organisations working to end violence against women and girls in all their diversity.

Giovanni Grandi, Head of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation Regional Office in Nairobi says that without ambitious investments to scale-up prevention programmes, effective policies, and provision of support services to address violence against women and girls, countries will fail to end gender-based violence by 2030.

He adds that his organisation is partnering with UN Women to advance and to support Kenya’s efforts to end GBV.

“This year, we launched the third phase of the ‘Let It Not Happen Again’ project, which brings our total commitment towards this very successful initiative to a staggering 2.7 million Euros (Ksh446 million); and recently we launched an initiative worth 4 million euros (Ksh650 million) specifically targeting women empowerment, improving health and environmental sustainability in arid and semi-arid lands,” Mr Grandi tells Nation.Africa.

Police in Bungoma are also playing a leading role in helping survivors get justice. Mr Kooli, the police boss, says they are working with the community in the cause.

He explains that the gender desks in the various police stations within his jurisdiction are helping to document cases SGBV.

“Our police officers, with the help of NGOs, have been trained on best practices of handling survivors including their mental health. Such training helps them to retrieve evidence without instilling fear in the survivors. We currently have more than 60 police officers trained in the nine sub-counties,” Mr Kooli tells Nation.Africa at his office in Bungoma town.

Survivor protection

He emphasises the need to have a rescue centre manned by the police to shelter survivors while their cases are ongoing to shield them from intimidation and in the end, ensure justice is served.

“We now have a one-off court session where suspects take the plea, and the survivor and other key witnesses testify on the same day. This is helping in sealing gaps that create cases,” the county commander says.

He is also rooting for hospitals to be equipped with facilities that take care of the survivors to ensure proper collection and documentation of evidence.

Scovia Lisa Ipalei, an Inspector of Police in charge of gender desk at Bungoma Police Station admits that cases of SGBV and GBV including teenage pregnancy, are on the rise in the area.

She reveals that many victims are usually traumatised when they come to report alleged violations.

“As a trained police officer and done who sits at the gender desk, I have to cultivate close relationships with the survivors and offer post trauma counselling where applicable. I have to also see them go through the healing process,” she says.

The police officer lists defilement as the most rampant form of sexual violence against girls and women, followed by rape.

She wants more police officers to be trained to handle such cases. The police officer is worried that cases of defilement and teenage pregnancy could go up during this long school holiday.

The latest data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) shows that national vulnerability for the girl-child stands at 14.9 per cent.
Data from the KDHS survey shows that Western Kenya has alarming rates above the national average of girl child vulnerability.

Bungoma County leads at 18.6 per cent followed by Busia at 18.3 per cent, Trans Nzoia at 17.8 per cent, Kakamega at 15.1 per cent and Vihiga County 7.7 per cent.

Beyond SGBV and HIV and Aids cases, residents are also worried about rising cases of teenage pregnancy.

A pregnant schoolgirl in Bungoma County on November 3, 2023. With the rise in teen pregnancies, cases of HIV among young women are also increasing.

Photo credit: Jesse Chenge I Nation Media Group

Rodgers Wekesa, a resident of Cheptais links high alcoholism, drug and substance abuse as being behind this sad state of affairs.

“There is a need for a serious crackdown on illicit brew in the area. It is affecting our schools through disruption of the girls’ education by subjecting them to early pregnancy and diseases. We fully support the county police commander on this,” says Mr Wekesa.

The wave of teenage pregnancies has seen a significant rise in school dropout rates. Earlier this month, a list of 54 female students from a mixed school went viral on social media.

The document stated that 20 girls were pregnant while 31 were teenage mothers. Three were said to have dropped out of the school following delivery-related complications.

Mr Paul Chemabus, the principal of the school that hosts approximately 500 students, tells Nation.Africa that he discovered the teenage pregnancy catastrophe two weeks after he reported, four months ago.

“The school had 31 students who had successfully delivered and continued attending classes. That resilience truly touched my heart,” he says.
The concerned head teacher emphasises the need to assist girls who aspire to excel academically.

He advocates psychosocial support, including counselling and access to essential resources that would create an environment conducive to learning. He regrets that most teen mothers end up not getting justice, perhaps because of the vibrant Kangaroo courts in the community.

“The vice remains a major hindrance to education among girls in the area.”

Jane* understands the challenges that come with parenting at a young age.

“At night, your child may fall sick, and you don’t have enough money to take them to hospital. You also have to focus on your studies because you have a strong desire to learn. Sometimes you don’t have enough money for diapers or baby oil.

“Sometimes you arrive at school late and are unable to explain to the teacher why. You fear telling the truth because students with children are treated differently. But we just want to be treated equally,” she explains.

Mr Chemabus now appeals to well-wishers to provide psychosocial support to enable girls to navigate the delicate world of teenage motherhood and help them continue with their education.

Cultural barriers inhibit open discussions about reproductive health. The girl child, particularly, faces restrictions in seeking guidance about her biological development.

Mr Chemabus sheds light on the matter: “The girls are not free to discuss their changing bodies because of cultural norms. Fathers are particularly discouraged from addressing these issues, hindering proper education on puberty.”

The situation in this one school is the tip of the iceberg. Latest statistics, shared by the county, show a total of 106,982 girls aged 10–19 got pregnant between January 2016 and August this year. The county’s teenage prevalence stands at 19 per cent, exceeding the national prevalence of 15 per cent.

*Names changed to protect identities of the teenagers.