Ignorance breeds children among Kenyan teens

Margaret Waigumo cuddles her baby in a squalid house in the teeming “Soweto” slum, east of Nairobi, joining a growing number on the list of Kenya’s teen parents, victims of taboos that inhibit sex education.

Waigumo (18) became pregnant two years ago after being forced into prostitution to help her family when they were evicted from their hovel for non-payment of the 500-Kenyan shilling ($6,80) monthly rent.

“Some of my friends advised me that instead of lying in poverty, you can get some money through commercial sex,” she recalls, twitching her fingers as she recounted her tale.

She had never had sex before, no information about contraception and would sell her body to men in a local pub for 500 shillings if they used a condom, double that without protection.

“I didn’t know that contraceptives or family planning existed,” she said. “I didn’t know that I could get pregnant.”

Many teenage pregnancies in Kenya — where 55% of its 33-million people are under 19, according to a 2003 study — are blamed on lack of information about sex and traditions that inhibit discussions of sex with children.

According to that study, more than 25% of Kenyan girls between 15 and 19 are either pregnant or are mothers and 85% of all 15 to 19-year-olds and 72% of those between 20 and 24 do not use contraceptives.

In addition, 70% of all adolescents engage in unprotected sex. About 1,2-million Kenyans are HIV positive and some 1,5-million people have died of HIV/Aids since 1984, it says.

“The veil of silence on sexual issues has to be removed,” says Lucy Kang’ara, a lecturer at Kenya’s Egerton University. “It’s a taboo in African society to talk about sex. It is always hidden in a lot of secrecy in Kenya.”

The situation is more dramatic in slums due to lack of access to media and other sources of information and parents never discuss sexual issues openly with their children.

“There is a distance between my mother and me,” says Waigumo. “I’m angry against everything, against educators, family and circumstances [that] forced me” into prostitution.

Yvonne Wairomu, a 16-year-old orphan who lives with her cousin in Soweto, has been engaging in unprotected sex since she was 14 and uses no contraceptives.

“My cousin is selling illegal brew but the business is not good,” she says. “To get money, sometimes I go to wash clothes, sometimes I go for commercial sex. I don’t have access to any contraceptives or anything.

“The only thing I can prevent myself is pregnancy, using the safe days,” Wairomu says.

An orphan, she had no parents to educate her, but other youth here say their mothers and fathers are reluctant if not totally opposed to discussing the facts of life.

“Our parents are not in a position to say something,” said Soweto teen Michael Wanjoh. “They normally think it’s not the right time and I’ve never found a parent to talk to.”

“Most of the parents don’t talk about sex to their children,” said George Gichanu, of Kenya’s National Coordinating Agency for Population and Development. “Most parents are shy and feel it’s the work of the teachers.”

But in a country where 70% of the population claims to be Christian, religious edicts play a significant role in suppressing openness in matters of sexuality in classrooms, Sunday schools and churches.

Schools lack curricula on sex education despite growing campaigns to fight HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases, and only 12% of the country’s health facilities have youth-friendly policies.

This has led many to urge religious leaders to take a stand — a call that has gone largely unheeded.

“The churches are not addressing the issue of youth sexuality,” said Kang’ara. “Churches are institutions of social change and should be in the first line to address these issues.”

Matildah Musumba, of the local chapter of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, decried opposition from the Catholic church to the introduction of sex education in Kenyan schools.

“There was an attempt to have sexual education in the 1990s, but the Catholic church ensured that we didn’t have it and it died,” Musumba told Agence France-Presse.

“The problem is that young people are ignorant,” said Zena Mohamed, another youth resident of Soweto. — AFP

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