Why the gospel of abstinence is not bearing fruit
By Mical Imbukwa
In Kenya, the message of abstinence receives a lot of attention, but it hasn’t had the impact many hope for, especially in dealing with rising HIV infections and teenage pregnancies among young people.
While promoting abstinence is well-intentioned and aims to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections like HIV, it hasn’t produced the desired results. Several factors contribute to its shortcomings:
The limited scope of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)
In Kenya, when it comes to teaching young people about sexuality, the main emphasis is on abstaining from sexual activity. However, many believe this approach doesn’t fully meet the needs and realities of young people in today’s diverse world.
While it’s important to talk about abstinence, it’s also crucial to cover other important topics like using contraception condoms, contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) prevention, healthy relationships, consent, and access to sexual health services.
Advocates argue that a well-rounded approach to sex education should include all of these topics and not just abstinence.
Response to high rates of HIV infections and teenage pregnancy
The high rates of HIV infections and teenage pregnancies are proof that young people are sexually active. Our solutions to these health outcomes do little to address these outcomes.
In Kenya, HIV infections and teenage pregnancies among young people remain persistent challenges. According to the HIV situation in Kenya 2023 report, about 3,244 new HIV infections occurred among adolescents aged 10-19 years in 2022, with young people (15-24 years) accounting for 41 per cent of all new HIV infections in 2022.
UNAIDS reports that in 2020, around 1.5 million Kenyans were living with HIV, and a notable number of new infections occurred among young people aged 15-24. Moreover, the rate of teenage pregnancies remains distressingly high.
In 2022, Kenya ranked third highest globally in teen pregnancies, where one in every five adolescents aged 15 -19 were already mothers or pregnant with their first child.
Social and cultural factors
Cultural norms and societal attitudes pose alarming barriers to open conversations about sexuality, gender roles, and reproductive health. The stigma and judgment encountered by many young individuals when seeking information and/or services related to sexual and reproductive health further compound the difficulty in accessing accurate and comprehensive resources.
Lack of access to contraception and sexual health services
In Kenya, young people face major challenges due to limited access to contraception and sexual health services. Factors such as cost, geographic distance, self-efficacy, and societal stigma create fundamental barriers, especially for those living in rural areas or marginalized communities, hindering their ability to access crucial reproductive health services.
Education and economic empowerment
In addition to other factors, lack of education and economic opportunities contribute to the vulnerability of young people to engage in early and unprotected sexual activity.
Comprehensive approaches to addressing sexual and reproductive health must include efforts to improve access to education, vocational training, and economic empowerment opportunities for young people, especially girls and young women.
Encouraging abstinence is crucial in sexuality education. However, it’s not sufficient to solve all the problems and connect with the realities of young people in Kenya when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health.
To reduce HIV infections and teenage pregnancies, we need a more elaborate plan. This plan should include giving the right information, making sure young people have access to contraception and sexual health services, and dealing with all the different reasons why young people make choices about sexuality, like their culture, where they live, and their financial status.