Teenage pregnancy has become an alarming epidemic in many African communities, robbing young girls of their childhood and potential.
Teens who become pregnant often face significant challenges in continuing their education and quest for a better future and are more likely to drop out of school.
African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) ranked Kenya third worldwide in 2019, with cases of teenage pregnancies recording a total of 175,488 cases.
Despite other statistics from Kenya Demographic Health Survey showing a reduction in teenage pregnancies in 2023, there emerged factors that still contribute to the escalation of this cycle.
Poverty, lack of education and limited access to reproductive health services all contribute to the perpetuation of this vicious cycle.
Adolescent pregnancies are also more likely to occur among poor communities, as 21 per cent of women aged between 15-19 years from poor backgrounds were reported to have been pregnant.
This is compared to only 8 per cent of adolescents from wealthier backgrounds.
The AFIDEP survey ranked Migori tenth among the top counties in Kenya with high teenage pregnancy prevalent cases reported at health facilities, recording a total of 4,960 in 2019 and 4411 in 2020.
However, for girls in Mgori County, initiatives to lower this rate by community-based organisations (CBOs) have borne results, and more girls are coming out with informed decisions.
One of the key promoters of community mentorship programs for young girls is the Tunaweza Empowerment Organization.
Tunaweza Empowerment Organization
Tunaweza Empowerment Organisation, a Community-Based Organization (CBO), is on a mission to break the cycle and rescue these girls from the clutches of their miseries.
Tunaweza, meaning “we can” in Swahili, is an organization that firmly believes in the power of community-driven change.
Their mission is to empower young girls by providing them with the necessary tools and support to overcome the challenges they face, particularly concerning teenage pregnancy.
Despite the need by almost the entire Migori community for intervention by such an organisation, Tunaweza picked the Kuria region, inhabited by the Kuria community.
The Kuria is a small community found in Migori County along the borderline of Kenya and Tanzania.
Girls from this community are faced with retrogressive cultural practices like FGM, putting them at the frontline of contracting early pregnancies.
Female Genital Mutilation and Pregnancy
According to Ms Gloria Ocholla, the executive director of Tunaweza Empowerment organization, when Tunaweza came into existence in the region, their main focus was to help weed out Female Genital Mutilation.
However, with other similar organisations also focusing on FGM in the region, there was a need to address the surging number of teen mothers.
A young Kurian girl circumcised is made to believe she is an adult regardless of their young ageGloria Ocholla
“We started operation in Kuria region to help girls who are fleeing from FGM and also to educate the community against the vice,” states Ms Gloria.
“However, she continues, other organisations also come aboard; hence we had to pay attention to teen pregnancy which was equally on the rise.”
Gloria outlines that FGM is still a cultural practice within the community and has left girls who have undergone the practice with the feeling of adulthood despite their young ages.
This feeling often fuels them to engage in premature and premarital sex, which results in early unplanned pregnancy and has become a silent crisis unfolding among the Kuria community.
“A young Kurian girl circumcised is made to believe she is an adult regardless of their young age,” narrates Gloria.
“The narrative pushes these adolescents into premature marriages only to be left with unwanted pregnancies when their suiters who are equally young cannot take care of them,” she added.
Period poverty has also been connected to the rise of young mothers.
The inability of these girls to afford pads often exposes them to men who prey on them in exchange for pads.
The organisation offers counselling and support services to girls who have already experienced teenage pregnancy, helping them navigate the emotional and practical challenges they face.
Among the key approaches includes using other girls with success stories of overcoming the challenges of a teen mother through their mentorships to educate others on better decision-making.
Additionally, the organisation engages key community members like elders to change the narrative within the community.
We built this facility here to harbour girls who have escaped the cut. But now it has turned out to do more than that. We use it to educate young girls about the dangers of teen pregnancy and also on how they can take care of themselvesGloria Ocholla
One key component of Tunaweza’s approach is the establishment of building facilities called ‘safe spaces’ for girls to gather, share their experiences, and access support.
These safe spaces serve as a platform for dialogue, education, and empowerment, allowing girls to build their self-esteem, develop life skills, and envision a brighter future.
Ms Ocholla narrates that during school holidays, young girls from the surrounding community assemble at the centre, where they are trained by mentors from different departments on safety.
“We built this facility here to harbour girls who have escaped the cut. But now it has turned out to do more than that. We use it to educate young girls about the dangers of teen pregnancy and also on how they can take care of themselves,” says Gloria.
The revelations also showed that these girls are not only faced with FGM but also other worrying issues like teenage pregnancies. States Gloria.
In the past decades, I have seen the potential of the youth go untapped due to limited access to education and mentorship. It was sad seeing young girls who are our future mothers getting pregnant with unknown menJosphat Chacha
“Through our engagement with girls, we come to realise that most of them come from poor backgrounds where even affording a meal is a challenge,” narrates Gloria.
She continued, “Some fear asking money for clothes and sanitary pads and hence opt to find them from men who use them for sex and mostly leave them pregnant unknowingly.”
Community Involvement in Breaking the Cycle
Gloria narrates that they recognize that lasting change can only be achieved by engaging community leaders and other stakeholders.
“By fostering a supportive environment that values the education and well-being of girls, communities can challenge harmful social norms and empower girls to make choices about their future,” she noted
Community involvement has proven to be crucial in breaking the cycle of teenage pregnancy as it has ensured the sustainability of interventions.
Josphat Chacha, a respected elder in the Kuria community, narrates witnessing the struggles and challenges faced by young girls in the community.
He observed the alarming rates of teenage pregnancy, the lack of opportunities, and the perpetuation of harmful communal vices.
“In the past decades, I have seen the potential of the youth go untapped due to limited access to education and mentorship. It was sad seeing young girls who are our future mothers getting pregnant with unknown men,” he shares.
However, his hope for change was rekindled when the Tunaweza empowerment organization emerged to transform the community.
Chacha says that the organization’s commitment to empowering young girls through education and mentorship resonated deeply with him.
Under Tunaweza’s influence, Chacha encouraged other community leaders to invest in the education and mentorship of young girls.
But not only Chacha, who has witnessed the transformation in the community.
Overcoming Barriers to quality education
Maureen Achieng, a local school teacher in the community, narrates having faced numerous challenges in her mission to provide quality education to her students, especially girls.
She states that limited resources, societal barriers and a lack of support for girls’ education were among the hindrance to her efforts.
Despite believing in the power of education to break the cycle of poverty and transform lives, she often found herself frustrated by the barriers faced by girls in accessing education.
“I believed in offering quality education to my learners, but sometimes the inconsistency in school attendance of some of them has been a drawback,” she said.
Maureen narrates that it was devastating to be told one of the promising girls in the class had run from home after getting pregnant.
However, the advent of Tunaweza programs in the community, which included offering mentorship programs and educational support, captivated her.
Equipped with newfound understanding and resources, she became a driving force within her school, championing the enrolment and retention of girls.
She additionally became a mentor herself, providing guidance and support to young girls in the school, instilling in them the belief that education was their pathway to a brighter future.
“Education is the key that unlocks the doors of opportunity,” she said, inspiring her students to dream beyond societal limitations.
The community’s perception of girls’ education also shifted as more families recognized its importance and actively supported their daughters’ aspirations.
She revealed to have collaborated with other teachers, engaging them in conversations about the importance of gender-responsive education.
Through her efforts, she not only transformed her classroom but also inspired fellow educators and the broader community to prioritize girls’ education and provide them with the support they deserve.
The impact of girl child sensitization programs against early pregnancies on the Kuria community has been profound.
Young girls have been empowered to make informed choices about their bodies and futures.
Sexual and reproductive health education, involving the community and offering mentorships, have equipped girls with the knowledge to protect themselves and make responsible decisions.
This has led to a decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies and a shift in attitudes towards early marriage and childbearing.
“My father works in another town, and my mother is ever busy with her work. I get everything I need from them but I sometimes feel like I need more, especially someone to share my thoughtsLilian Ghati
Most young girls are seen to come out and say no to teenage pregnancies, child marriages and FGM during various events.
This is contrary to the past, where no girl could come out to speak freely against the vices.
Lilian Ghati, a beneficiary from the mentorship programs, shares her story of where she found herself surrounded by a harsh reality that plagued her peers.
While many of her friends succumbed to this predicament, Ghati stood strong, armed with knowledge and mentorship that guided her towards a different path.
She understood the importance of protecting herself against teenage pregnancy, knowing that it could derail her dreams and ambitions.
“Almost all my friends and peers are mothers. I was scared that I would be a mother too because we were always together,” she shared.
Although she acknowledges the unwavering support from her parents, who provided her with everything she needed, she says they were too busy and no one could guide her.
She said she risked plunging into peer pressure until the mentorships came in handy.
“My father works in another town, and my mother is ever busy with her work. I get everything I need from them, but I sometimes feel like I need more, especially someone to share my thoughts,” explains Ghati.
With unwavering focus and support from the girl empowerment program, she balanced her studies and responsibilities, refusing to be swayed by the distractions that lured her peers away from their academic pursuits.
“Education is my armour, and knowledge is my shield. With them, I can protect myself from the traps that life sets along the way,” she says courageously.
Her determination and self-belief were contagious, inspiring her peers to re-evaluate their choices and strive for a better future.
Through her unwavering determination, she not only defied the odds but also became a guiding light for others, showcasing that with the right knowledge and mindset, one can overcome any obstacle.
Against all odds
Other than young girls coming out with informed decisions, girls who have faced the wrath of young motherhood also come strong and pursue a better course.
Faith Amina, a teenage girl from the Kuria community in Migori County, got pregnant at the age of 15 years old and is now a mother of a 3-year-old child.
My stepfather heard me sharing with my mother about my pregnancy, which I had not planned for. He got angry and kicked me out of our home. j had to seek refuge at my grandmother’s place until I deliveredFaith Amina
According to Amina, poverty and lack of someone to mentor her in making good life decisions, she has contributed to her being a young mother.
Faith says that the inability of her mother to provide for her basic needs pushed her into a premature relationship with senior men when one of them left her pregnant.
“At home, we are five, and my mother could not provide for us all. Sometimes I needed money for upkeep and even to buy sanitary pads, but there was no one to provide,” she narrates.
She adds that when her father passed on, they were left at the hands of their stepfather, who she said is always violent and drunkard.
This, she says, made life difficult at home, and hence she had no one to confide in, leading to her mishap.
Her stepfather also chased her home when he realised she had conceived.
“My stepfather heard me sharing with my mother about my pregnancy, which I had not planned for. He got angry and kicked me out of our home. j had to seek refuge at my grandmother’s place until I delivered,” she shared.
Despite delivering and now a young mother, Amina notes that had she met a mentor, and her life would not have taken the direction it did.
However, through mentorships and counselling programs, she chose a better path and rediscovered her new self.
Amina shares that she uses her story to inspire and empower girls in the Kuria community, serving as a reminder that every girl deserves the chance to thrive and succeed, regardless of their past.
Although there exist notable changes in narrative and perception from the community and the teenagers in general, there exist gaps within the initiative.
The programs are being run in Kuria West only, but the issue of teenage pregnancy is a nightmare for the entire county, and this still leaves other girls with similar challenges.
Additionally, cultural norms and attitudes towards teenage pregnancy can be deeply ingrained, making it difficult to change long-standing beliefs and practices.
While the programs have had significant success in the Kuria community, scaling them up to other communities requires careful planning and resource allocation.
Financial constraints often limit such initiatives, as not all communities are willing to welcome new ideas.
Some community members request payment to attend mentorship training for communal benefits.