In Kenya, the younger generation is experiencing an unintended and surprising side effect of the coronavirus lockdowns– a significant rise in teen pregnancies. Over a three month period of the lockdown, there was a 40% rise in the number of teen pregnancies in Kenya, with 152,000 pregnancies reported. There are a number of reasons why this figure has increased since Kenya went into lockdown, each of which contribute to the increase in Kenyan teen pregnancies.
One significant cause of the rise of teen pregnancy in Kenya is the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic. As the country focuses its healthcare system and medical resources on fighting the coronavirus and caring for the sick, reproductive health services can fall by the wayside. Additionally, historical evidence on epidemics shows that lockdowns and restrictions on movement make it difficult for girls to access the limited medical services that are available.
Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown
Even before the pandemic, Kenya was already struggling with reduced funding for reproductive and sexual health services, as well as limited sex education in schools. The cultural taboo around talking about sexual health at home has left Kenyan teenagers reliant on their schools for this knowledge, yet they do not receive the necessary education for pregnancy prevention because the sex education curriculum mainly focuses on HIV prevention and abstinence. However, Kenyan students do not have access to even this limited sexual health education while they are in lockdown. Thus, unplanned pregnancy increases drastically as nearly 4,000 school girls have become pregnant within the Kenyan COVID-19 lockdown.
Teen pregnancy in Kenya during the lockdown also disproportionately affects girls who are living in poverty. The lockdown is stressful and even dangerous for those who struggled financially even before work and schools shut down. When they attended school, students living in poverty received free meals and hygiene products. However, students no longer have access to these resources because Kenyan schools are anticipated to be closed until 2021.
Due to these school closures, the added burden of parents taking care of children who are now stuck at home worsens the hardships of poverty. Additionally, many parents whose families live in poverty have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Since they no longer earn any income, parents are struggling to afford essential goods. In an effort to assist the family, teen girls may turn to older men for access to food, money, and other resources they do not have access to during the pandemic, and in some cases, teens are impregnated by those men.
Teen girls who become pregnant during the lockdown face a lifetime of difficult consequences. Pregnancy and childbirth-related complications are the number one cause of death globally for 15 to 19-year-old girls, and in Kenya, adolescent girls made up 45% of severe abortion complication cases. This is especially dangerous given that pregnant mothers already face the threat of coronavirus and a medical system struggling to handle the pandemic. Girls living in poverty or in areas without easy access to medical facilities risk not receiving improper maternal and newborn health services, putting the health of both mother and baby at risk.
The consequences of teen pregnancy in Kenya continue after childbirth and often affect the trajectory of a young mother’s future. 98% of pregnant teenagers are not in school, and most never return after giving birth. After being forced to drop out of school, teenagers struggle to get higher-paying jobs and leave impoverished areas. This thus perpetuates the cycle of poverty immensely. In addition, taking care of a child requires money, time, and resources that are hard to come by for poor teenagers. This further contributes to the poverty these girls live in because they often must raise their child without adequate funds, therefore forcing the family deeper into poverty.
Although these statistics may seem dire, organizations in Kenya are working to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy and ensure mothers and babies get proper healthcare support. One of these is the Kenya Association for Maternal and Neonatal Health (KAMANEH). This organization works to promote reproductive health education and provide affordable, accessible health services. These essential services make pregnancy and childbirth much safer for Kenyan women and girls living in poverty.
KAMANEH has partnered with the Medical Link Integrated Health Program, a Kenyan NGO. They work to develop reproductive health programs in hospitals and maternity centers in poor areas of Nairobi. The organization also hosts women’s groups who train once or twice a year on maternal and reproductive health. They then produce songs and performances about proper health behaviors to then educate their communities. KAMANEH works to establish 21 healthcare facilities throughout poor counties in Kenya that have high maternal mortality rates. To help improve maternal healthcare quality, they plan to equip these clinics with trained midwives and medical supplies.
COVID-19 lockdowns have undoubtedly impacted Kenyan teen pregnancy rates. The structure of the Kenyan health and education systems has worsened the situation substantially. But with the proper reproductive education and health services, there is still hope for Kenyan teenagers to overcome this issue.
– Allie Beutel