Sex education in Kenya has been considered taboo and the responsibility to teach children and teenagers has been passed from parents to the church, to teachers back to parents and so on. This could set a dangerous precedent, considering the level at which teenagers are engaging in sex.
A report by the Guttmacher and African Population and Health Research Centre has put the percentage of teenagers (aged 15-19) in Kenya having sex at 37 per cent for females and 41 per cent for males.
This is a ‘shocking’ statistic especially in a country where sex is still considered taboo, and sexual education is largely ignored by the community unless it only takes the ‘abstinence only’ approach.
The Kenya Demographic Survey (2014) mentions teenage pregnancy and motherhood as a major health and social concern. As per the survey, 15 per cent of women aged between 15 and 19 have already given birth and three per cent are pregnant with their first child. The percentage is higher in rural areas as compared to urban areas.
The sexuality report further states that although 96 per cent of all adolescents have heard of at least one modern contraception method, only 41 per cent aged 15-19 are using any and 37 per cent are using a modern method.
According to the report, a majority of the youth in Kenya are not using any contraception because they have an unmet need. This means that they do not want to get pregnant or want to delay the next birth by two years or do not plan on any (additional) children but are not using contraception.
The East Africa Centre for Law and Justice (EACLJ) places unplanned pregnancies in teenagers at 47 per cent and abortions at 310,000 annually, of which 21,000 women are admitted with abortion-related complications.
In Kenya, abortion is a permissible only in four cases: through the opinion of a trained health professional, when there is need for emergency treatment, when the life or health of the mother is in danger and if permitted by any other written law. Abortion was among the contentious issues during the 2010 referendum, with religious groups opposing the inclusion of a clause that allowed women to have an abortion when their health is in danger. They said it could exploited to allow abortion to be obtained easily.
Although the Kenyan Constitution passed, as it was, the fight for safe abortion still goes on. The Ministry of Health in 2014 was forced to withdraw national guidelines for abortion, whose aim was to reduce deaths and illnesses associated with unsafe abortion.
As much as the discussion of abortion is ongoing, unsafe abortions continue to rise as many women turn to quacks to procure the service. Reports indicate that significant percentage of Kenyan women are hospitalised annually with abortion related complications including haemorrhage, sepsis, shock and pelvic abscess.
Not only do such statistics indicate the need for effective modern contraceptives but also a need to close the gap in sex and reproductive health education.
Sex Education Obstacles
The provision of sexual and reproductive rights education has faced a number of limitations, one of which is the way discussions about sex and teens are conducted.
Upon the release of this Guttmacher Institute report, one of the local dailies run a headline “We want Condoms- Teens”. Not only did it elicit negative responses from different stakeholders, the discussion was reduced to the issue of condoms instead of the broad discussion on the need for comprehensive sexual education.
One of the loudest critics of comprehensive sexual education- the church, came out strong to oppose the provision of such arguing it encourages the youth to engage in sex.
“This [article] makes me feel really sorry for the many youngsters out there who are committed to abstinence- still the only sure way to prevent pregnancies and STIs- who will read this and feel disheartened in their efforts,” said Matthew Otieno, a Priest in Nairobi.
According to the report, there has not been any review of the sexuality education policies in the country including the reports initiated in 2003-5, 2009 and 2010 as well as 2013 and 2015, which largely focused on the provision of sexual and reproductive health education geared towards the youth. None of these were carried out in a unique sexuality education package; instead, topics were spread to other subjects like biology and social studies.
It was highlighted in the report that stakeholders involved in the creation of these policies are government, teachers, civil society organisation, activists and professional groups. Conspicuously missing are the adolescents themselves—something not unique to Kenya.
This means that most of the content in the curriculum is not only prescriptive but also fear-based. Importantly, the content focuses on some issues of sex education and takes a complete academic approach. One of the respondents in the report said that the curriculum is ‘obsolete’ and fails to address the changing environment around sex and issues in the society. Another respondent said that there was a need to change the context of the curriculum to specific areas, giving an example of West Pokot where issues such as Female Genital Mutilation should be given focus as compared to Kisumu where HIV prevalence is high.
Another main challenge to access to information in the classroom is the lack of teacher training on matters of sexual education. According to the report, only 70 per cent of teachers have received pre-service training, with 68 per cent needing more training. Half of these teachers received in-service training, mostly due to lack of resources and non-standardisation of the training across the country. Most of the trainings are organised by non-governmental organisations.. Teachers have also had to deal with unsupportive parents, with one in five teachers experiencing opposition from the community.
Teacher and principal attitude influence the teaching of sexual education and the students’ learning experience, thus influencing their attitude, behaviour and sense of agency. The report indicates that 62-72 per cent of teachers and principals believe that making contraception available to students will encourage them to have sex. This already means that some teachers will opt out of talking about contraception and focus on other topics.
For the students, while the school environment provided an environment conducive for sexuality education, fear still exists in terms of self-expression in front of others, with a third to a half of the students saying they are afraid of being teased or being physically harmed.
Owing to the gap created in the provision of sexual education in schools, a number of alternative sources have cropped up. 95% of the students in the report stated that they received sexual education from the media sources; 86 per cent from friends, girlfriends and boyfriends; 72 per cent from their mothers; 70 per cent from health, community and youth centres; and 39 per cent from their fathers.
However, the quality of information students receive from these sources is unknown. Some respondents in the report implied that they withhold some information from the students depending on their age in an effort to push the abstinence-only agenda.
“And so when we teach them about their reproductive organs, when we tell them ‘You are a girl and you have a vagina,’ at that age when you are still underage, [we tell them] that your vagina is meant for urination, so she comes up knowing that the work of the vagina is only for urinating,” said one respondent.
The media has also been under scrutiny for the kind of content they expose to adolescents. For many, social media especially has become a promoter of ‘inappropriate’ sexual content yet it is one of the main sources of information for students, half of whom stated that they use the internet for information.
Although for most students parents are their source of information, there still exists a gap when it comes to parents’ skills to deliver sexuality information appropriately.
It is against this background that the report recommends the adoption of comprehensive sexual education to ensure that students access information and resources to develop capacity, self-efficacy, responsibility and resilience.
It also recommends improving the curriculum, coordinating programs run by different stakeholders, implementing pre and in-service teacher training and adopting an evaluation and monitoring mechanism for sexuality education in schools.
In conclusion, providing with sex and reproductive health education could be a way to ensure that teens can access information and services related to their health in a free and non-judgmental way as well as handle their sexual health issues without endangering their lives.