At 17 years old, every teenager is supposed to be in high school, if all goes according to the law of the land.
This has not been the case for many girls in Kenya, who find themselves in the family way, either because they made wrong choices in their relationships, or they were sexual abuse victims.
Nancy Akinyi was only 17 when she dropped out of school, got pregnant, ‘got married,’ suffered domestic violence and walked out of the marriage, all within one year.
Now at 22, she’s using her unpleasant experience to encourage teen girls, who may find themselves in similar situations, and cautioning other young girls on the consequences of making wrong choices in life.
The mother of one is looking forward to joining college and pursuing a course in nursing, so that she can take care of other young girls — a privilege she yearned for, but was never accorded.
Nancy was in Class Seven when a 30-year-old man made her pregnant. She had to drop out of school to attend to her daughter, but life took an ugly twist when her grandmother who was her sole guardian became hostile towards her and her child.
She decided to move in with the father of her daughter, hoping for a better life. The two years she spent in the relationship felt like 20 years, Nancy says.
“Being a teenage mother, battling with harsh living standards, and putting up with an alcoholic and abusive man was more than I could handle. He was always violent after taking alcohol. He mistreated me and our child, making life with him unbearable. I decided to leave to save my life and that of my daughter,” she recalls.
To fend for her daughter, Nancy got a job at a food kiosk where she earned Sh200 per day. With no one to leave her baby with, she had to go with her to work, doubling up as caregiver and kiosk attendant. After working for six months, she left following what she terms as constant mistreatment by her employer.
“She would withhold part of my payment anytime I took leave to attend to my baby’s needs, like clinic visits. She was also verbally abusive, especially when she found me attending to my child while at work. I decided the job was not worth the strain, so I quit without knowing where I was headed to,” Nancy narrates.
Luck must have been on her side because her paths crossed with paralegals from Plan International, a non-governmental organisation, whose mandates include rescue of girls who find themselves in situations like hers.
“They took me in and enrolled me in their Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) Programme.
They took me back to school and restarted my education at class eight, and last year, I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), scoring a mean grade of C- (minus). Besides taking me back to school, Plan International has empowered me with life skills.
In the centre where we meet, I have interacted with other girls with stories similar to mine, and we are now empowered to make better life decisions, including the value of being an independent thinker. I’m looking forward to joining college later this year, to pursue a nursing course,” she says.
Nancy’s case is not isolated, as cases of teen pregnancies and gender-based violence in Kenya are rampant.
*Charity (not her real name) is 24 years old and a fourth-born in a family of six, from Maweni Village, Msambweni Sub-county of Kwale County. Although she was born in Kilifi, she moved to Kwale County after her father separated from her mother.
“Growing up, life was hard. My mother had to sell local brew to fend for us and because her income was barely enough to afford school fees for all of us, my sisters dropped out of school and got married at very tender ages,” she narrates.
Unlike her sisters, Charity did not want to give up on school and amid challenges, she continued with her education, and managed to sit for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2011.
However, she could not continue with the secondary education because her mother could not afford her school fees.
“A friend connected me to a family, which was looking for a domestic worker. Without hesitating, my mother convinced me to take up the offer,” recalls Charity.
Life was hard, she says, as her employer exploited her by subjecting her to long working hours, including late in the night, sometimes without a meal to replenish her energy.
Her Sh3,000 salary never came in time, thwarting her plans to save enough money to fund her secondary school.
It was during that time, aged 17, that she met a 25-year-oldman, who lured her into having sex in exchange for money and gifts. In the short-lived affair, she got pregnant and the man walked out of her life, leaving her with no choice but to go back home to her mother and await the birth of her baby.
“I gave birth in extremely difficult circumstances,” says Charity.
While helping my mother in her local brew den, I can’t remember the number of men she urged me to sleep with, arguing that it would keep them coming back to buy the brew, which would translate to cash for the family, my daughter included,” recalls Charity.
Charity’s life took a turn for the better when she was identified by a community activist as a victim of teen pregnancy and enrolled in the Girls Advocacy Alliance programme. Since then, I’ve been trained on life skills and in sexual and reproductive health matters.
Together with other girls in the programme, we saved our transport money, which GAA used to give us to use to commute for training and we have since opened a food kiosk.”
My proceeds top up our family’s income and I’m able to support my child. As I stabilise financially, I hope to start a salon, a separate food kiosk and a vegetable shop,” she says.
The Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) is a lobby and advocacy programme for equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women.
The programme is jointly supported by three Netherlands-based organisations — Plan Netherlands, Terre des Hommes and Defence for Children-ECPAT, with a presence of advocacy works in Kisumu, Kwale and Nairobi counties.
Raphael Kariuki, Terre des Hommes Netherlands head of East Africa explains that one of the major challenges facing girls and young women in Kenya is poor access of education, which is mostly caused by unplanned pregnancies.
“As a result, these girls grow to become women who are likely to be low wageworkers, exposing them to economic exclusion, marginalisation, sexual and gender-based violence” he observes.
He further states that women and adolescent girls continue to experience systematic economic discrimination, sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, despite the existence of various laws, international treaties and conventions meant to eradicate these vices.
Mr Kariuki observes that Gender Based Violence (GBV) is still prevalent in Kenya, and that it undermines the health, dignity, security, and autonomy of its victims.
“To complicate matters, GBV remains shrouded in a culture of silence, debauchery, and impunity, as the mechanisms put in place to deal with it have not been effective” he laments.
Kariuki points to a study conducted by Terre des Hommes Netherlands (TdH-NL) on “Public and Private Sector Policies Addressing Gender-Based Violence and Economic Exclusion of Young Women and Girls in Kenya” between September and December 2018, which revealed that the majority of private sector firms do not have social-economic policies and practices for the empowerment of young women and girls.
“Despite significant improvements in gender equality over the years, gender-based discrimination persists in the private sector with current policy practices fashioned to address equality for women in the professional arena, by largely excluding and marginalising adolescent girls and young women,” he points out.