The hardest decision that 20-year-old Mercy Muthoni ever had to make was whether to keep her pregnancy after she learnt she had conceived at the age of 17. She was in form three at the time at Akiba Mixed Secondary School in Kangemi, Nairobi.
“It was during the school holidays, during the third term, that I fell pregnant. I was involved with a boy from our school who was a newcomer. But I knew him from home; we lived around the same area”.
Mercy did not suspect anything was amiss when she missed her period in December 2015.
“I had previously experienced painful menses and sometimes I had to visit health centres. I thought my cycle was acting up as usual”.
Schools opened in January 2016 and Mercy and her boyfriend joined Form Four. However, Mercy was lethargic and felt sickly all the time. That is when she suspected she might be pregnant. She confided in her boyfriend who suggested a pregnancy test.
“When the test came back positive, I was filled with a sudden fear. I was still in high school; how was I going to break the news to my mother? What would my friends think? I became so stressed and could not concentrate in school,” Mercy says.
For two weeks she decided to skip school. Her boyfriend also refused to go to school, saying that if she misses school he would also not go. During those two weeks, she lied to her mother that it was her usual period pains.
NO LONGER A SECRET
During the second trimester, at the beginning of the second term, Mercy was summoned to the head teacher’s office.
“There were rumours going around the school that I had had an abortion. By this time, I had not even disclosed to anyone apart from my boyfriend that I was pregnant.
“At the head teacher’s office, I was asked about the allegations and I denied them. I was sent home to bring my parent.”
It was at that point that she decided to tell her mother about the pregnancy. Her mother was supportive throughout the pregnancy, but had warned her that raising a child, and especially at her age, was not going to be easy.
When Mercy started showing, she decided to stay at home. The school allowed her to continue with her studies whenever she was comfortable.
She delivered her son in August 2015 and sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams two months later.
“I don’t regret having a baby but I regret the timing and not having planned for it. I am, however, happy that I got the chance to continue with my education”.
Matters of contraception among teenagers strike a sensitive chord among many adults. It is only after the ‘mistake’ has happened that guardians discuss contraceptives.
The 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey shows that half of the women in Kenya aged between 20 and 49 had their first sexual intercourse by the time they turned 18. One in 10 women of the same group had their sexual debut by 15.
Grace Adhiambo was about to join college when she learnt she was pregnant. She did not know how she would break the news to her parents. She felt she had disappointed them.
"It took the intervention of some friends for my parents to allow me back home," Grace says.
She says that if she had more information on where to get contraceptives, she would have been in a better position to protect herself and decide when to have her baby.
Grace married the father of her child and hopes to join college soon. She would like to study front office management.
Both Mercy and Grace did not plan for their pregnancies.
SUPPORTING FAMILY PLANNING
In the heart of Makadara estate in Nairobi, a group of men is trying to change the narrative on the uptake of family planning.
Bishop Bernard Mutuku, 63, of Redeemed Gospel Church, and a group of at least 60 other preachers have been championing family planning efforts. They urge the men to support their wives in planning their families and even help them make a decision on which contraceptives to use.
“For a long time, men shied away from the topic and even when their wives got complications, they had no way of knowing, as some women kept it a secret. Other women did not seek family planning services for fear of being reprimanded by their husbands,” Mutuku says
It was after a training that Bishop Mutuku decided to mobilise a group of likeminded pastors and registered an association which has been sensitising men since 2012 on the need to be involved.
In addition to holding seminars, the association works closely with health centres which help monitor the participation of men in family planning services.
Although the group is more focused on married men, it also visits high schools and colleges to create awareness on family planning.
Family planning has many cross-cutting benefits, especially for a country like Kenya. Removing the barriers to access of family planning and putting adequate investments can yield greater social economic returns in future.
Increasing access to family planning services can be a big boost towards sustainable development.
SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION
National coordinator for the Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Alliance, Johnstone Kuya, calls for proper coordination on sexual health education between the Health and Education ministries, to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.
While the Ministry of Health has been proactive in providing youth-friendly guidelines on sexual reproductive health, the Ministry of Education lacks proper policy on how to provide information to schoolchildren.
“Also, many schools are managed by religious institutions who draw a line when it comes to morals and information. As such, family planning interventions among teenagers is limited,” Kuya says.
Access to contraceptives and family planning services is important to curb unplanned pregnancies.
“Young people should be listened to. Many assume that young people are not sexually active but they’re just burying their heads in the sand. For instance, when organisations come to talk to us in school, they’re always telling us to abstain, but no one provides the option of contraceptives,” Mercy says.
She adds that girls opt for the emergency or morning after pills, which sometimes do not work.
Kuya feels sexual health education, and especially on correct use of contraceptives, is important.
“No one is also telling the youth that prolonged use of hormonal contraceptives from an early age is detrimental. Most of them get their prescription over the counter and many pharmacists are not keen to follow up on the teens’ health history.
“You find that it is also a double edged sword, but the biggest undoing is lack of information,” Kuya says.
To achieve universal health coverage, stakeholders are now calling for the integration of sexual reproductive health in the school curriculum as well as the separation of girls’ verses boys’ interventions in schools.
The government is also being urged to provide youth-friendly services that will curb teen pregnancies.