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Is there an ‘epidemic’ of teenage pregnancies?



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Kenyans are now seized of a new conversation, this time on the “rise” in teenage pregnancies. The media has increased focus on pregnancies among minors, especially around the recently concluded primary and secondary school examinations. Government officials and other public figures are all lining up to provide solutions, with some being based on conventional wisdom, others based on personal experience, and all of them having little truth or practical usefulness.

We have seen senior government officials saying those responsible for teenage pregnancies should be hanged or jailed for life.

Others have suggested that the men responsible be castrated and treated as outcasts. We have even seen others linking teenage pregnancies to pornography on the Internet and on television, and thereby calling for the censoring or control of access to pornography as a way of reducing teenage pregnancies.

We must first begin by deconstructing the idea that teenage pregnancies are necessarily on the rise. Pregnancy statistics will indicate that the reproductive age for women is conventionally considered to be between 15 and 40 or 45.

The most fertile period for a woman would be between the ages of 15 and 25 and, therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us if many girls and women in that age group became pregnant. Since we as a country decided that we do not want our children getting pregnant, we must put certain policies and laws in place to prevent it.

Killing or castrating the men responsible does very little to deal with it.

The key issue is that we need to delay sexual debut for our boys and girls, and ensure that those that have early sexual activity do not get pregnant and put their own lives at risk.

The aim of the policy should be to ensure that our girls do not start their reproductive life so early that they jeopardise their physical, psychological and social health.

To address this problem we must come up with interventions that achieve that goal.

Banning pornography or killing men and boys will not necessarily reduce teenage pregnancy, but will have far wider social ramifications.

The reasons young girls are getting pregnant before the age of 18 are many and varied, and include instances in this country where early marriage is still encouraged and condoned in some places. Girls as young as 10 to 15 years are engaged to men the age of their grandparents. Even more relevant in “urban” settings, young girls and boys experiment with sexuality and some end up getting pregnant. Understanding these dynamics would help reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies.

What has been proved to work are measures that ensure that girls go to school and make marriage decisions later in their lives, without the pressure of being engaged to older men before they are even out of primary school. Sex education in schools and other social settings (including religious institutions and youth gatherings) is also a useful way to begin helping young boys and girls to understand the ramifications of their sexual choices and behaviours, hopefully resulting in behaviour change and reducing unwanted pregnancies among our youth.

Teenage pregnancy is an old phenomenon requiring innovative methods to address. Knee-jerk reactions going as far as closing down the Internet will not prevent them.

Atwoli is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine; [email protected]