by Grace Ndanu
When the head teachers and principals find out that a girl is pregnant in the Kenyan schools, they tell her that she has to leave the school immediately. They go ahead and tell her that a pregnant girl is not allowed to be in school because she will be mocked by other students and be a bad influence. Kenya is one of the countries that is associated with high numbers of teenage pregnancies. Every year, thousands of girls become pregnant at the time when they should be studying mathematics, history, science and geography. These girls who have early and unwanted pregnancies face many social and financial barriers to continuing with formal education, as they are often forced to drop out of school and to get married.
In 2013, all the countries that make up the African Union including Kenya, adopted Agenda 2063, a continent-wide economic and social development strategy. African governments agreed to commit themselves to build Africa’s human capital, which it terms its most precious resource, through sustained investments in education, including the elimination of gender disparities at all levels of education. Two years after the adoption of Agenda 2063, African governments joined other countries in adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a development agenda whose focus is to ensure that no one is left behind, including a promise to ensure inclusive and quality education for all.
African governments have also adopted ambitious goals to end child marriage, introduce comprehensive sexuality and reproductive health education, and address the very high rates of teenage pregnancy across the continent that negatively affect girls’ education.
These member states have failed to do their duty for a long time. They continued to exclude thousands of teen girls from school because they are pregnant. There are arguments that revolve around morality; for example, they believe that, pregnancy outside wedlock is morally wrong, emanating from personal opinions and experiences, and wide-ranging interpretations of religious teachings about sex outside of marriage. The effect of this discourse is that pregnant girls – and to a smaller extent, school boys who impregnate girls – have faced all kinds of punishments, including discriminatory practices that deny girls the enjoyment of their right to education. Education is regarded as a privilege that can be withdrawn as a punishment. In the Masai community of Kenya, when a girl becomes pregnant before marriage she is regarded as a disgrace to the family, and therefore some of them are sent away from the family while others are sold out for marriage to men who can be the age of their grandfathers.
Kenya’s Parliament started debating the Care and Protection of children and parents, which is being pushed as a legal framework to help expectant girls stay in school to full term and follow their dreams once they graduate. With around 18% of Kenyan girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen having given birth to at least one child, the proposed bill says that a student should not be denied her right to education simply because she is expectant or has a baby. The bill further advocates that the girl get adequate support – from her school, her family and the government, even after the baby is born.
Although the bill is being opposed because, it apparently bars parents or guardians from knowing the outcomes of their children’s pregnancy tests, if ever carried out in schools. Also, school principals are continually engaged in a hard balancing act. They have to balance policies and laws against the expectations and perceptions of the people they serve. The two are often in conflict because people are never sensitized properly. So, it is possible that the bill would place many school principals and head teachers at risk of imprisonment.
Poverty is still a major constraint for many girls. Although the government is able to meet the aim of ensuring that more girls returned to school, keeping them in school in the long term is another dilemma. A girl might return to school for one term or session but drop out again the following term for financial reasons. Therefore, the bill should consider the financial status of Kenyans.
The bill certainly comes from the right place. Nonetheless, if there is one thing I know, it is that policies and laws do not implement themselves. A well-crafted law has to be implemented by prepared people. People need to be properly engaged and brought on board. They need to be given a chance to become familiar with the content of a new policy, bill or law. They need a chance to air their concerns and they need to feel like they have been heard. They need to understand that the government is there for them and that their needs and concerns are taken seriously.
Many other factors contribute to thousands of adolescent pregnant girls and adolescent mothers not continuing formal education. High among them is the lack of awareness about re-entry policies among communities, girls, teachers, and school officials that girls can still study when they are ready to give birth and should go back to school after giving birth. People should be told that the laws and policies set don’t encourage teen pregnancies, instead it supports pregnant girls. Also parents should be sensitized on the importance of having open conversations with their children so that their children can can be able to fully trust them. Schools should include counselors’ budget so that girls and boys can receive counseling services when they need it.