Role of parents in preventing teen pregnancies

By Mical Imbukwa & Karuana Mwai
In the heart of Makina, Kibra, Africa’s largest informal settlement, a young woman named Zuhura (20) resides. Everyday grapples with the profound consequences of our society’s failure to provide teenagers with access to sexuality education. 

Zuhura’s life took a turn when she was seventeen. She got married and swiftly became pregnant following her very first sexual encounter. She attributes this dire situation to her father’s inability to provide her with information about sex and relationships, as her primary caregiver during her childhood.

‘Mum and dad divorced when I was eight years old, and the responsibility of raising my siblings and I was on dad, who worked in a distant town and only visited once in a while,’ Zuhura says. She adds that, as the firstborn, she was forced to take up the responsibility of catering for her siblings from the age of twelve.

Across the nation, teenagers grapple with a host of challenges stemming from the absence of sexuality education. Perhaps most notably, the high rates of early pregnancies, sexual harassment and transmission of sexually transmitted infections.

Bereft of the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate intimate relationships responsibly, young girls find themselves ill-prepared to contend with the physical, emotional and socio-economic repercussions of teen pregnancies. As a result, their education is frequently disrupted, compounding the challenges they face.

The role of parents in sexuality education

Seated outside her mud-walled house, Zuhura, dressed in a black cloak complemented with a red floral hijab, reflects on how her life might have taken a different path had she received sexuality education from her dad.  

‘With proper guidance on sexuality, I would have wholeheartedly dedicated myself to education and I would have avoided getting pregnant at an early age,’ Zuhura confides with a tremor in her voice.

According to Zuhura, her dad never addressed sexuality  and he was never comfortable getting her sanitary towels and underwear. He always sought the help of a female neighbor. 

Sex education disparities in schools

‘The first time I heard about sex was in high school. Because girls used to talk about their boyfriends- how they used  family planning, and how they will go on dates on Saturdays,’ reflects Zuhura as she tenderly cradles her baby in her arms while breastfeeding. 

She adds  that some teenagers were deemed primitive by their peers for being virgins because they had not experienced sex. 

Zuhura says that her teachers rarely discussed sex and relationships, possibly assuming that her class was already well-informed on these matters.

Teen pregnancy rates and lack of sexuality education

According to UNESCO 2023, two out of three girls in many countries lack the knowledge they need as they enter puberty and begin menstruating.

The situation is particularly pronounced in East and Southern Africa, where pregnancy rates ranging from 15 to 25 percent prevail, as highlighted by the UN Agency. The lack of sexual education is identified as a key contributing factor to these alarming statistics. 

Focusing on Kenya, the problem of high teenage pregnancy is not a new phenomenon. Data obtained from the Demographic and Health Surveys reveals that nearly 2 out of 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are either pregnant or have already become mothers.

Another study conducted by the Center for Reproductive Health and the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) exposes a pervasive lack of knowledge surrounding critical aspects of sexual and reproductive health. 

The study, which TICAH and CRR carried out in Nairobi, Bungoma, Homabay, Kericho, and Kilifi, reveals alarming gaps in understanding among girls and women regarding menstruation, contraception, safe abortion, sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive rights, and Kenya’s constitutional provisions on sexual and reproductive health rights. 

The findings of the report emphasize that the absence of accessible sexual and reproductive health information contributes to low uptake of contraceptives, a rise in unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, increased incidences of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and a higher prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence.

What is the government doing?

The Kenyan government is committed to advancing sexual reproductive health by implementing policies and laws that govern sexual health practices. Notable among these legislative measures are the Sexual Offenses Act, Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Act, and the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act.

The UHC act recognizes sexual and reproductive health as an essential component of comprehensive healthcare, emphasizing the importance of providing equitable access to reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception, and maternal healthcare.

To bolster their commitment in sexual health, the Ministry of health and development partners, recently  launched the Kenya National Reproductive Health Policy 2022-2023, prioritizing the specific needs of young people and covering multiple aspects of reproductive health.

Further, the government has provided a standardized template that schools and individuals can use as a guide to deliver evidence-based sexual health education, among young people to ensure the dissemination of reliable information. 

The importance of parental involvement: Insights from a sexual health specialist

Leshan Kereto, a sexual health specialist and chairperson of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Youth Advisory Panel, emphasizes the critical role parents play in their children’s sexual and reproductive development. Kereto asserts that parents hold the key to laying the foundation of knowledge and understanding for their children on these sensitive topics.

Research conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports this notion, revealing that teenagers who engage in open conversations with their parents about sex, relationships, birth control, and pregnancy tend to have sex at a later age, use protection more consistently, communicate more effectively with their partners, and engage in sexual activity less frequently.

In light of these findings, Leshan urges parents, communities and policy makers to prioritize comprehensive sexuality education in school and at home, emphasizing that parents should strive to initiate human sexuality conversations with their children from an early age.  

‘If you are not free enough with your children to tell you about their vulnerabilities, then they will not be able to tell you when there is a tough choice or situation, especially when it comes to sexual health,’ he concludes.

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