Practical Measures Needed on Teen Sexual Education
MOMBASA, Oct 27 (IPS) - Kenyan teenagers are having sex. And they appear to have no clue how to go about it.
A report by the Nairobi-based Centre for the Study of Adolescents (CSA) reports that 40 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys reported having had sex before their 19th birthday, a significant minority reported having sex with more than one partner in the previous six months. The report also confirms what many youth workers observe in their daily work: the youth are having sex but they lack vital information on sexual and reproductive health.
IPS visited St Georges Boys Secondary School in Kaloleni, Kilifi, in Kenya's Coast province, and found that myths abound among the youth where matters of sexuality are concerned.
Seventeen-year-old Isaac Thura said he had been told that if one has sex while standing, pregnancy will not occur. His 16-year-old classmate Billy Warui said a friend told him that sex is important to strengthen a relationship. The boys admitted that they do not talk to their parents about sexual matters because the subject is taboo.
When asked which they feared more between pregnancy and contracting HIV, a majority of the boys said they would rather contract the virus.
"Pregnancy cannot be kept a secret for long. Within a short time the entire community will find out about it. However, with HIV one can live for long and no one will find out. Life prolonging drugs are available and one can continue leading a normal life," said Alex Fondo confidently.
"We would all like to live in a cloud of denial," says Peter Macharia, coordinator of a Mombasa youth centre run by reproductive health group Family Health Options Kenya. "But the reality is our youth are having sex and they have no one to talk to about these matters."
In a survey carried out in 145 schools across Kenya, 40 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys reported having had sex before their 19th birthday.
The Centre for the Study of Adolescents polled secondary school students in Nyanza, Mombasa, Nairobi and Central provinces, attempting to survey a cross-section of society. Half of the girls surveyed indicated that they had exchanged sex for gifts or money for such things as cash to buy cellphone airtime or, memorably, a plate of French fries.
Girls from poorer backgrounds indicated being enticed to have sex in return for money to cater for basic necessities they would otherwise have to forgo, such as clothes, sanitary pads and food.
Boys did not report engaging in transactional sex of this kind; the survey indicated their sexual experiences took place with partners their own age. One in 20 boys interviewed admitted to having made a girl pregnant. Forty-seven percent of the teens surveyed either had a child, were pregnant, or had undergone an abortion by age 20.
A separate study by CSA in 2008 recorded an estimated 5.5 million girls between ages of 15 to 19 years give birth annually in Kenya. In September this year, Marinyn Secondary School in Kericho, Rift Valley Province faced a crisis when all but one of the girls scheduled to sit their final exams were forced to drop out due to pregnancy. The report further indicated this same group has more than one million unsafe abortions each year.
The majority of the youth polled by CSA in 145 schools in Nyanza, Mombasa, Nairobi and Central provinces in 2008 indicated they would rather inquire about sexual matters from friends. And when in need of medical care, the youth reported being afraid to walk into a hospital and seek assistance.
The clinic at Macharia's centre, is the only one in the whole of Coast province which provides reproductive health services to young people.
"We are the only centre that provides holistic reproductive health services to the youth. Here they can walk in and access contraceptives, seek medical attention, visit the library which has a lot of information or speak to a peer educator," he says.
However, he contends these services - for which they charge the equivalent of three U.S. dollars per visit - can only reach about five percent of the youth in the province.
And there are few alternatives. Mwanakasi Mwinyi, a youth peer educator at Likoni Community Development Centre, says available health facilities are not youth-friendly.
"I once visited a hospital with a reproductive health problem and instead of getting help; I received judgemental looks from the medics. Instead of quickly offering me assistance, they interrogated me about why and with whom I was having sexual intercourse," Mwinyi said.
"Their probing looks and derogatory questions left me dejected and at some point I contemplated walking out of the facility without treatment. However, I bore the shame of their questions and got the help I needed, but I would never go back there again."
At St Georges, a public school, aside from a project funded by a non-governmental organisation, there is no sexual education on the curriculum. Sex education at Kenya's government schools is all but silent on contraception and safe sex largely due to stiff resistance from churches; led by the Catholic Church. Christian leaders argue that teaching youth about such issues is tantamount to telling them to go ahead and have sex.
In September this year, a school in Kericho, in the Rift Valley reported that 24 of 25 girls who enrolled in Form One, 24 left before sitting final exams: all pregnant. While Kericho District Commissioner Samuel Njora's shock revelation may be an extreme example, anecdotes like this bolster CSAs contention that there are rising rates of pregnancy among girls across Kenya and that government urgently needs to review the reproductive health curriculum in schools.
Macharia contends that sexual education in schools is watered down. "What we have is information that barely scratches the surface, and in the end the young people are left with many gaps to be filled. They are curious and what they do is fill the gaps through talking to friends and this leads to experimentation with wrong information."
Youth need support
The executive director of CSA, Rosemarie Muganda, recommends that the government commit funds for the establishment of youth-friendly clinics.
Muganda says the primary concern at this point should be how to limit the harmful consequences of risky behaviour. She contends that Kenya needs to put in place practical mechanisms and move away from moralising the issue.
"There is need to invest in youth-friendly clinics where young people can speak freely and get assistance without feeling vilified. The staff manning the clinics must be trained and should have skills to deal with young people," Macharia says.
Consensus among reproductive health experts is that young people are having sex and society had best accept this and ensure teenagers are informed and safe while they do it.
The experts also agree that the role of parents cannot be substituted by outside interventions, arguing that parents must ensure they talk to their children about the right attitude to sex.