Kenya will have to pay more attention to the welfare of teenage girls, especially their reproductive health, if it is to crown its position as the best place in the region for a child to grow up, indicates a global report on children welfare.
Despite leading the East African Community (EAC) in most children’s welfare indicators, the country drops points in curbing child marriage and teenage pregnancy, according to the Global Childhood Report 2019 published by Save the Children. This is against the backdrop of a heated public debate on whether to reduce the legal age of sexual consent to 16, with many fearing that such a move will promote sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
The adolescent population is a big challenge the world over, according to Save the Children.
“It is a moving target because they transition quite fast – if you do not address their issues fast enough they have moved on to the next age group; and their needs are multi-sectoral – they need education, protection, livelihoods, health services and more,” says Jane Mbagi Mutua, the director of programme development and quality at the children welfare organisation.
The report estimates Kenya’s teenage birth rate in 2016 at 82 births per 1,000 girls age 15-19, with Rwanda having the lowest rate of 27 followed by Burundi (27.4) and South Sudan (65.2). Uganda and Tanzania are worse off with 111 and 117 respectively. All EAC countries have rates lower than the sub-Saharan average of 122.
At the same time, Kenya had one in eight (12 percent) girls aged 15-19 getting married between 2013 to 2018, as Rwanda registered the lowest rate in the EAC of three percent and South Sudan the highest of 40 percent in the same period.
Age of consent
Opponents of the proposal to lower the age of sexual consent could be right in their argument that doing so will lead to an escalation of sexual abuse, pregnancies and the spread of HIV/AIDS among teenagers, if data in the PMA2018 Kenya Round 7 Family Planning Brief is anything to go by. According to the brief, almost half (48 percent) of women surveyed aged 18-24 had their first sexual encounter by age 18, of which only 13 percent used contraception, leaving them exposed to pregnancy and HIV. The Kenya Demographics Health Survey 2014 showed that one in six teenage girls is pregnant with their first child, or is already a mother.
However, many proponents of a lower age of consent have based their arguments on the need to address the plight of the many boys convicted of sexual offences after having sex with their age-mates.
The Sexual Offences Act provides that a person found guilty of defiling a minor aged between 12 and 15 be jailed for not less than 20 years while whoever has sex with minors between 16 and 18 years gets a minimum of 15 years.
While Chief Justice David Maraga has not approved a change in the law, he has in the past alluded to its unfairness. “This is one of the areas I have had serious difficulties with, the boys and girls are our children. I have no problem when the perpetrator is an old man, but when it comes to boys and girls between the ages of say 17 and 20,” he said during a peer seminar on the criminal justice system in relation to gender-based violence.
As to whether lowering the age of consent will increase sexual activity and associated consequences among adolescents, constitutional lawyer Bobby Mkangi thinks that while it is important to change the law to set a benchmark, the law is defeated if there is no social infrastructure to breathe life into the law. ‘‘We should appreciate that even with the current laws, this is still happening, only that the problem with our country is that we try to deal with social issues using the law,” he says. Research has shown that early marriage and teenage pregnancy impact on other areas of a girl’s life, such as school attendance, proneness to domestic violence, access to reproductive health information and lack of financial independence.
Intervention programmes and initiatives in the adolescents’ space have been slowed down by challenges such as drug abuse and alcoholism, peer pressure and communication barriers between parents and adolescents or even service providers.
“The adolescents are caught between being neither children nor adults and are normally ignored even as a lot of expectations are placed on them. In time of crisis, they are normally grouped as adults and their needs ignored as they are not viewed as vulnerable groups,” explains Ms Mutua.
Kenya compensates for a poor showing in adolescents’ welfare with top rankings in keeping children in school and curbing stunting for under-five-year-olds. The country, alongside Tanzania, also has the smallest share of children forcefully displaced by conflict (0 percent). It does better than most EAC countries in preventing child deaths and child homicide, coming second in both cases. The report did not have Kenya’s data on children engaged in labour.
One in four (26 percent) under-five-year-olds in Kenya is stunted, while Burundi has the highest rate (56 percent), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Data from FAO for 36 African nations indicates that two in three countries recorded declines in the proportion of children affected by stunting, Kenya coming fifth among the most improved countries.
“Improvements in child nutrition in Africa have been linked to international aid, a broad scaling up of health interventions that reduced childhood illness like malaria control, vaccination coverage, HIV prevention and treatment, and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities,” states the Global Childhood Report 2019.
Even as Kenya leads the EAC in providing education for children, that clout withers on the continental platform. About one in five children of primary and secondary school-going age misses classes in Kenya, the 16th lowest in Africa. In Africa, Gabon has the best statistics, with one in 13 children (eight percent) out of school as the situation in South Sudan’s stands out as the most serious, with two-thirds of the children missing school.
Providing access to education empowers the child intellectually and provides a cushion from external threats such as early marriages. A 2018 report by the World Bank shows that each additional year a girl completes in secondary school reduces the likelihood of child marriage by eight percent.
About one in 10 Kenyans of age three years and above have never attended school, according to the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015/16. On the other hand, the share of children attending primary and secondary education has been on the rise, with the proportion of primary school pupils standing at 82 percent in 2016, compared with 79 percent in 2006, and enrolment in secondary schools doubling from 18 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2016, according to the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Surveys 2006 -2016.
Kenya ranks 14 in Africa and 121 globally in promoting the welfare of children, with an end of childhood index score of 747 out of 1,000 points, a 174 point increase from 573 in 2000. This rise places the country at position 14 of the most improved countries.
The childhood score is based on how a country performs in reducing under-five mortality rate, stunting, school absenteeism, child labour, early pregnancy and extreme violence.
Sierra Leone, which suffered an 11-year-long civil war that ended in 2002, followed by a deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014 that killed 3,955 people, was the most improved country globally. It added 246 points to the 345 it had in 2000.
The Central African Republic is the worst-performing country in the world, with 394 marks. Eight of the 10 bottom-ranked countries globally are from West and Central Africa.
As the country joins the world in marking the Day of the African Child, such statistics seem to call upon the society and policymakers to invest more in the child, especially on girls’ reproductive health.