State should deploy all tools available to fight teenage pregnancies

Recently, Cabinet Secretary of Health, Susan Nakhumicha, was reported to have said she will not facilitate the availability of condoms to underage Kenyans. She attributed the stance to her ‘firm Christian foundations’. She fronted abstinence as a precautionary measure against STDs and pregnancies among teenagers.

Incidentally, her utterances come when Kenya is seeing a rise in HIV/Aids infections for the first time in a decade, according to the 2022 World Aids Day report released in November 2022. The report emphasises that this unprecedented increase is witnessed among children, adolescents and younger people.

This demographic is generally considered vulnerable because of their lack of legal capacity to make their own decisions, vulnerability to making irrational decisions due to limited experience and vulnerability to manipulation by adults. This means this group needs special targeting with healthcare information to enable them to make better decisions to secure the future of Kenya. Notably, the median age in Kenya is between 19 and 20 years, which means, most Kenyans are very young.

These sentiments come a week after the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima urged Kenya to ensure that teenagers have access to contraceptives. She noted that societal inequalities and injustices are currently driving up the HIV/Aids pandemic, which is rolling back the gains regarding reducing the infection and impact of HIV.

For context, the Ministry of Health revealed that between January and February 2022, it handled almost 46,000 cases of pregnant adolescents aged between 10 and 19 years. Of those cases, slightly over 2,000 involved sexual and gender-based violence among persons between 12 and 17, meaning that adults took advantage of the young and vulnerable.

Notably, statistics show that these cases are more prevalent in rural areas, suggesting links with factors such as cultural practices and lack of information on contraception.

Kenya and the world have come a long way in the fight against HIV/Aids in the past three decades. Those who were young in the 1990s and early 2000s recall the combination of information on prevention, contraceptives, including the distribution of free condoms and science that were combined to turn the tide on the disease. For over a decade, there was less spread due to the public awareness of methods of prevention while the plight of those infected improved due to better treatment regimes.

Withholding condoms from underage Kenyans undermines the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health rights of a large portion of our population. A 2012 National Commission on Human Rights report on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights earmarked unwanted pregnancies as a serious problem facing adolescent girls and youth in Kenya.

Girls who get pregnant are sometimes forced to procure unsafe abortions, drop out of school, and are married off early against their will, thereby jeopardising their development and potential.

Sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescents and the youth are guaranteed at the international level and in the Constitution. Internationally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides, under Article 12, that adolescents and youths have a right to health and development.

This implies that the State must give adolescents and youth reproductive health treatment and information to take complete charge of their lives. The personal religious and moral convictions of our leaders should not trump our national goals to protect every Kenyan, including vulnerable teenagers.

First published in The Standard on 01st March 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]