Kenyan teenagers want to be taught how to use contraceptives, including condoms, oral pills and injectables, as part of sexuality education in school and at home.
Because they are already sexually active, they also want to know where to get these products so as to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
These are some of the findings of a study on teens aged between 15 and 17 in Homa Bay, Mombasa and Nairobi counties.
Researchers from the Guttmacher and African Population and Health Research Center interviewed 2,484 teenagers for the study, titled From Paper to Practice: Sexuality Education Policies and Their Implementation in Kenya, which will be released on Wednesday.
Respondents said they were very interested in knowing about HIV/Aids, reproductive health, puberty and the resulting physical changes in the body, abstinence, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Only two out of every 10 interviewed said they knew anything about contraceptive methods; only one out of 10 said they knew how to use contraceptives, and less than two out of 10 said they knew where to find them.
This interest in contraceptives is a startling admission by Kenya’s teenagers that they are already having sex, and puts parents on the spot for not being pro-active enough to ensure the sexual or reproductive health of their children.
Nearly three out of every 10 teenagers interviewed said they were sexually active, majority of whom were males.
Girls, generally, are known to have an early sexual debut compared to boys, and therefore it is possible that these figures were quite conservative.
Boys could also claim to be sexually active either to mislead the researchers, or as a way of proving they have come of age.
Other studies have shown that 62 per cent of girls and 81 per cent of boys aged 15 to 19 know where to get condoms, but only 49 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively, have comprehensive knowledge of HIV and Aids.
HIV prevalence among 15-to-24-year-old girls is four per cent, compared with two per cent among their male counterparts, and the number of new infections among females aged 10 to 19 in 2015 was more than double that among males in the same age-group.
Respondents said the current sexuality education curriculum is “highly moralistic” and fear-based as it only preaches abstinence.
The church and Parliament have been generally opposed to the inclusion of topics related to contraceptives in sex education because such information, they say, could encourage teenage sex.
But the study dispels this by citing two studies in the US that show there is no link between improved access to contraceptives and increased sexual activity among adolescents.
Aimed at addressing the high levels of unprotected sex, STis, early pregnancies and abortion among adolescents, the study could be seen as teetering on the edge of morality by religious and social purists.
But in a country where 20 per cent of youth aged between 15 and 24 say they had sex before turning 15 — according to the Ministry of Health — this is a conversation that parents, teachers and policy makers are forced to have.
Pastor Philip Kitoto of the International Christian Centre, Nairobi, agrees that the current curriculum does not address the needs of children, but insists that morals are the foundation of a good society.
“The problem is that we have adopted a ‘telling’ rather than ‘engaging’ approach to sexuality education,” says Pastor Kitoto, who is also the vice-chancellor of the KAG East University.
“We need to hear from our teens why they think it is important for them to have sex now, and then engage with them on what is right or wrong about their thinking and behaviour.
Pastor Kitoto says “the whole spectrum has failed”, from parents to teachers and the Church, as these induce fear rather than understanding.
“We only talk about diseases and unwanted pregnancies, but never the right and pleasurable timing,” he says.
“Teenagers will obviously rebel if we keep bombarding them with fear.”
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) defines child sexuality education as one that aims to equip children and young people with information, skills, attitudes and values that will enable them to develop a positive view of their sexuality, in the context of their emotional and social development. It can be done in or out of school.
Such education not only covers prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but also sexual anatomy and physiology; reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth; HIV/Aids; family life and interpersonal relationships; and culture and sexuality.
Respondents in the survey suggested that although parents expect them to learn some sexuality education in school, teachers on the other hand expect parents to provide this information at home.
Kenya’s adolescents, therefore, are caught in a ping-pong between home and school that is yielding a huge information gap.
Where it happens, teachers reported just glossing over the subject because they are embarrassed to “mention reproductive organs by name”.
Relationships between teachers and students often mirror parent-child interactions, and this “could lead teachers to experience inhibitions similar to those that constrain parents in discussing sexuality with their children”, say the researchers.
Because of these inhibitions, fewer than 10 per cent of teachers showed contraceptive methods to their students, and only 27 per cent of these had explained the proper way to use a condom.
Ministries of Education from the East and Southern Africa region, including Kenya, signed a declaration in 2013 to scale up comprehensive rights-based sexuality education from primary school.