Imagine giving Kenyan pupils something that has been proven to help them make healthy, informed choices about their sexual and reproductive lives.
The solution already exists: comprehensive sex education.
To be comprehensive, sex education needs to be scientifically accurate, age appropriate, nonjudgmental and gender sensitive. The lessons should extend to prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as contraception and unintended pregnancy. The pupils should also learn about values and interpersonal skills, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights.
Previous research shows that more than a third of Kenyan teens between the ages of 15 and 19 have already had sex. Although only four in 10 sexually active unmarried teenage girls use any modern method of contraception, the vast majority of them want to avoid pregnancy. About one-fifth are already mothers, and more than half of these births were unplanned.
At a time when a new national school curriculum is starting its pilot phase, our recently released study provides critical evidence of the gaps in the content and delivery of existing sex education programmes.
The study, conducted in 2015 in 78 public and private schools, found that three out of four surveyed teachers are reportedly teaching the topics that constitute a comprehensive sex education programme. Yet only 2% of the 2 484 sampled pupils said they learned about all the topics.
Incomplete and inaccurate information is being taught. Most of the teachers emphasised that abstinence is the best or only method to prevent pregnancy and STIs. Yet numerous studies have shown that abstinence-only programmes do not work.
Only 20% of pupils in our study had learned about types of contraceptive methods.
Kenya already has the policy infrastructure for a comprehensive programme. Its national school health policy was developed by the ministry of education and the ministry of public health and sanitation and their partners in 2009. The policy underscores the need to ensure that students receive quality health education, including sex education.
Kenya has also been a signatory since 2013 of a joint health and education ministerial commitment to provide rights-based sex education starting in primary school.
But implementation has been slow and uneven. Nairobi City County has acknowledged this gap and recently launched an initiative to strengthen health programming to increase the number of schools that offer comprehensive sex education.
The ministries of health and education should honour their commitments. An immediate priority should be fostering partnerships between schools and community healthcare providers, who may be better placed to provide some particularly sensitive sex education content.
The ministries should also invest in teacher training in how to teach sex education effectively. They should also ensure that teachers have sufficient time to cover the full range of topics in their classes.
Increased focus on pregnancy and STI prevention strategies should cover a broad range of contraceptive methods and negotiation skills within relationships.
Melissa Stillman is a research associate at the Guttmacher Institute and Estelle Monique Sidze is an associate research scientist for the African Population and Health Research Centre. This is an edited version of an article that was first published on The Conversation Africa