'Sex for sanitary pads': how Kenya's lockdown led to a rise in teenage pregnancy

Girls who got free sanitary products at school were pushed to desperate measures in what is being called a shadow pandemic

A 17-year-old girl who is seven months pregnant holds a doll at her home in Kibera, Nairobi. Photograph: Monicah Mwangi/Reuters


Thousands of girls in Kenya will not be going back to school when classes start again in January, because they became pregnant during the Covid 19-lockdown.


The African Institute for Development Policy puts the number of teenage girls who became pregnant in the country between January and May at more than 150,000, with Nairobi recording nearly 12,000 pregnancies. Anecdotal evidence from healthcare workers across the Kenyan capital suggest the true figures could be higher, as many pregnant teenagers are not coming to clinics.


Parents were unable to provide basic hygiene requirements such as clean water, soap and sanitary pads after schools in Kenya closed in March, says Mercy Chege, programme director at Plan International Kenya, and there were cases of young women being preyed on by older men with spare cash.


“It is a shadow pandemic,” says Chege. “Out of school, the girls had much free, unsupervised hours where the allure of sex for pads was irresistible. The government used to give sanitary pads to girls while in school but failed to extend the services to their homes when schools closed, leaving the girls at the mercy of ‘friends with benefits’.


“Sometimes sex was in exchange for as little as the 15 Kenyan shillings (10p) required to pay for a daily shower in a public bathroom. Many would go for days without taking a bath and could do anything to appease someone who promised them such small luxuries.”


She adds: “A few girls were lured into child pornography. Perpetrators told them it was not wrong since they did not have to practise what they saw, but they didn’t know they were being sexually abused.”


In the sprawling Dandora suburb in Nairobi, girls share stories about their disrupted lives. Jackie is sitting pensively on a bench outside a makeshift provision store. She should be chatting with her friends, or preparing to go back to school after almost a year. But at 16, she is six months pregnant. She’s tired and finds it difficult to sustain a long conversation. Worries about her life and that of her unborn child are written all over her face.


Jackie came to Nairobi from the lakeside city of Kisumu in 2018, where she lived with her mother. Her father died when she was small. “My aunt in Nairobi promised to educate me since my mother was incapable of doing that. Then she chased me away when I got pregnant in July,” she says.


Getting pregnant was the last thing Jackie wanted when she met her equally young boyfriend in Dandora. Teenage girls in Nairobi, she felt, seemed to enjoy life more than in her village.


“We were just having fun. He [the boyfriend] seemed to care and would give me 50 shillings to buy [sanitary] pads. He did not use any protection before we had sex. Nobody thought what we did would result in pregnancy,” says Jackie, shaking her head in despair. “I wish I could go back in time and do things differently. It is too late now.”


Jackie broke the news of her pregnancy to her boyfriend who beat her, accusing her of recklessness. Alone and with no job or family nearby, she dreads the arrival of the baby.


According to the UN Population Fund, six months of sustained global lockdown is expected to “leave 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to a projected seven million additional unintended pregnancies”.


Kenya already had a high pregnancy rate among teenagers, with more than 13,000 girls dropping out of school every year to have babies.


In Dandora, Jackie shares her tin-walled, one-room house with Liz, who was thrown out by her landlord after defaulting on rent payments for more than three months. Liz is 17. In Kenya, anyone below the age of 18 is considered a minor who should be under the care of a parent or guardian.


But Liz has to work to provide for her newborn baby girl. The country’s Covid-19 lockdown happened just as she was about to start the first year of high school after a delay due to lack of fees. “Schools closed and then I met this boy. I am not even sure if I loved him. He ran away when I told him I am pregnant,” Liz says. Her baby is not feeding properly. “The baby is not getting anything at all. I have not been eating well. There is no milk.”


Three weeks after giving birth, Liz went around the neighbourhood looking for menial jobs like washing clothes. “Then I started bleeding because the scars had not healed. I would faint often. Then people would not hire me any more,” she says.


Lack of adequate sex and reproductive health education among young people has been a hindrance in preventing teenage pregnancies. A recent report from Homa Bay in western Kenya, where a third of all girls aged between 15 and 19 fall pregnant every year, says parents and teenagers are uncomfortable discussing sexual matters with one other. Young fathers, for instance, said they knew little about conception and were surprised to learn of their girlfriends’ pregnancies.


Karis, 17, is a new father. News that his girlfriend was pregnant seemed like a joke to him at first. “She came and told me that she had missed her periods. ‘What does that have to do with me?’ I asked her. I thought she needed pads,” he says. “Then she removed what I learned was a pregnancy kit and showed me two lines that indicated she was pregnant. I did not believe her until months later.”


For young women and girls, seeking medical attention has been difficult. Covid-19 disrupted services, and even in the best of times healthcare is sporadic or inadequate in Nairobi’s informal settlements such as Kibera, Mathare, Mukuru and Kawangware, where 75% of the city’s population lives. Liz is yet to have her 10-week baby immunised against tetanus, pneumonia or rotavirus while Jackie, six-months pregnant, is yet to visit a prenatal clinic. However, it is the thought of going back to school that scares them the most.


Earlier this year, the education ministry outlined regulations that will allow girls who have babies to continue their schooling without discrimination. But many are afraid of going back to school for fear of ridicule or being judged by their peers and teachers.


Chege says: “Despite the school re-entry policy, the school environment is hostile for the young mothers because of ridicule and abuse. Recently, a teacher told a class to consult a teenage mother on the issue of sex as she ‘is an expert on this topic’, yet she was a rape victim. Already, some of the girls fear venturing out, as people refer to them as mothers to ‘Covid babies’.”


Names have been changed


This article was published by The Guardian.

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