By Omar Zabbibah /Davis Langat
African societies’ tendency to sweep under the carpet what they perceive as bringing shame to families during the upbringing of children has impacted negatively in the efforts to curb vices such as teen pregnancies and defilement.
Thus, avoiding addressing matters that directly affect the future generation such as early marriages or suicides is bound to have great negative effects in the society.
Statistics from global childhood in 2019 indicate that Kenya ranked third world-wide in terms of teenage pregnancy with one girl in every five girls between the ages of 15 to 19 either pregnant or already a mother.
Teenage pregnancy is defined by the World Health Organization as pregnancy of female aged 10 to 19 years, in Kenya however, a person of 18 years is considered an adult able to make decisions pertaining to their sexual life, a fact that many have blatantly chosen to ignore and instead measure sexual maturity based on a scale of body size.
Homa Bay County has for a long time been a major contributor to these numbers ranking among the top counties leading in the number of teenage pregnancies in the country.
The prevalence rate of teenage pregnancy in the county standing at 33 percent puts it in second position after Narok with Ndhiwa Sub County taking the lead.
Issues like poverty, lack of teenage-friendly healthcare, unavailability of information related to reproductive health, cultural practices, reluctance in enforcing policies and laws against child abuse, social media and drug abuse have been the major contributors to the large numbers.
Existing laws in the country that require imprisonment of between 15 years to life upon conviction; according to the Sexual offences Act No 3 of 2006, has not been able to effectively curb the vile act.
Available statistics indicate the county has had fluctuating numbers of teen pregnancies ranging from 14, 646 in 2017, 14, 733 in 2018 the number reduced to 13, 644 in 2019. In 2020 however, the number increased by more than 5000 following prolonged closure of schools due to covid-19 pandemic.
Children’s Officer in charge of Homa Bay Town and Rangwe Sub Counties Joseph Otieno revealed that some community members have been a hindrance in the fight against teenage pregnancy and defilements.
He said some parents and guardians avoided reporting cases and when they do, some witnesses and victims do not show up for follow ups or court proceedings forcing the security officers to let the perpetrators go free.
“Cases reported to the office sometimes do not end in convictions because families do not want to bring shame to their households or prefer to settle the matters out of court. Victims may also feel ashamed or at times they are threatened by the perpetrators,” said Otieno.
Records from Homa Bay town and Rangwe Sub Counties Children’s Department shows that only 26 cases of teenage pregnancies were reported and follow ups made while 114 cases of defilements have been reported in the financial year 2020/2021.
Otieno however said that these numbers were not a true reflection on the state of the county, as community members would rather swallow this issues as a sour pill than report to the relevant authorities.
He said collaborations between the Children’s Offices and health facilities would a go a long way in ensuring that every case is reported.
The official said that the majority of young mothers fall in the age bracket of 11 to 17 years with only a few being younger than ten years.
In majority of these cases, perpetrators have been other teenage children. Reported cases involving fish mongers, bodaboda riders, church members and relatives also exist.
Otieno also explained that they have received a total of 62 cases of abandoned children of below five years in the past one year which he believes were as a result of children giving birth to and with other children.
The children who fall victims of these acts are unable to provide for their children and themselves because of their backgrounds and they shy away from approaching offices in charge of adoptions, opting to abandon their children in health facilities, churches or roadsides.
Otieno also elaborated that most girls do not return to school after child birth due to shame with some ending up as child brides. “Rangwe and Homa Bay town sub counties recorded 29 cases of child marriages of children of ages between 14 to 17 years in the just ended fiscal year,” he noted.
He said the focus is on prevention of teenage pregnancies, defilements as well as child marriages through creation of awareness.
“We are sensitizing parents, children as well as perpetrators of these acts about the rights of children and their responsibilities in ensuring these rights are protected,” he said.
Otieno noted that the Area advisory Council (AAC), a body that constitutes various ministries, the Judiciary as well as various non-governmental organizations has assisted the children’s office in spearheading the fight against child abuse.
According to available statistics, Homa Bay County has a poverty rate of 43.1 percent and this has pushed many young girls into unsafe sex in exchange for money.
To mitigate the situation, the government through a program dubbed “cash transfer” disburses two thousand shillings every month to vulnerable families to cushion them economically.
“All these measures however, cannot work alone. It requires the effort of every individual if we are to eradicate these despicable acts. Corruption and shame that prevent people from fighting defilements must end,” Otieno said.
He said it is not enough to teach children about their rights, as learning about their responsibilities towards themselves is an important way of ensuring they protected themselves from perpetrators including children of their own ages.
“Protection of the rights of children will ensure that we protect the future of our nation,” Otieno said.