Matters reproductive health are in the media, courtesy of the recent ICPD conference, and the discourse attracts all demographic groups with the older generation — the decision makers in regard to policy, regulation and legislation — shouting the loudest.
But this discourse is discussed in a transitional sociocultural environment, where the traditional ethical and moral obligations no longer resonate yet the liberal Western ones are not yet palatable.
Reproductive and sexual health education used to be comprehensively addressed to adolescent learners by uncles, aunts and grandparents. Today, these elders are not only physically distant but also often separated from the learners by language, values and beliefs.
Media and peers attempt to fill this vacuum with information that may be inadequate and/or inaccurate. Parents are faced with a choice of either breeching mores, traditions and taboos or hoping the matters will be adequately covered by biology teachers.
Take the case of menstruation and menarche. Preparation for most girls is predominantly in class, were only the biology is addressed without requisite emotional and practical aspects. Many mothers have contradicting emotions. Anxiety due to associating menarche with sexual activity, possible teenage pregnancy and subsequent embarrassment to the family. A mother whose daughter has delayed menstruation is anxious and seeks medical attention.
With this contradiction, girls are not adequately prepared to handle their periods and, instead of celebrating the transition into womanhood, the mixed messages leave them at best confused but often ashamed, resentful and fearful of having entered a danger zone.
Consider the recent debate on the HPV vaccine. It is a scientific fact that infection with the human papilloma virus is associated with cervical cancer. And cervical cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers among women in Kenya. But then, there is the small matter of sexual transmission of the virus and the adolescent girls whom the HPV vaccine targets.
Vaccination presupposes vulnerability to transmission and so allowing our unmarried daughters to get the HPV vaccine would be tantamount to acknowledging that they are sexually active. The “Kenya Demographic and Health Survey” showed that, by age 18, half of the women had had sexual intercourse. Wouldn’t it make sense to give this vaccine to the millions of teenage girls?
There is an argument that providing sex education would encourage experimentation and promiscuity, and vaccinating adolescents is encouraging premarital sex. Let us separate facts from morality.
Is the sexual information available to our adolescents mainly from the parents, teachers, media or peers? Is it accurate and adequate to empower them to make informed decisions? Can we improve the communication channels and scope? Should we enhance the scope of the syllabus of the teacher to include reproductive and sexual education? Should we deny our sexually active adolescents protection from deadly cancer?
Is the resistance towards the vaccine an acknowledgment that our daughters do not walk the straight and narrow?
Prof Mutugi is the vice-chancellor, Amref International University. [email protected]