Girls as young as 11 years are having sex in Vihiga County in exchange for cheap gifts like sanitary towels, body lotion, perfumed soap and snacks.
Most of them get pregnant before their 17th birthday, with many dropping out of school to fend for themselves and their children.
They are driven into these relationships mainly by poverty, parental neglect and— as some put it— mere pleasure of having an older boyfriend with ‘lots of money’ to boast about.
Take, for instance, Risper who is 17 and seven months pregnant. A former Form Three student at Demesi Mixed Secondary School, Risper had to abandon education when her pregnancy started showing.
“I was too shy to ask my father for sanitary towels, so I asked my stepmother who referred me back to my father or told me that I was a big girl and needed to fend for myself. Many a time, I went without sanitary towels,” she says.
In October last year, she entered into a relationship with a 22-year-old Abdul.
“Every month, he would buy me soap, lotion and sanitary towels and on a good day, he would give me pocket money of about Sh200,” says Risper. She would return the favour with unprotected sex although Risper reveals that this is not her first man as her first sexual experience was when she was 16.
“It is the poverty and need that causes us to sin. Men give us things that our parents cannot afford to buy us such as sanitary towels, perfumed soap and lotion,” she continues.
Unfortunately, Risper fell pregnant in December last year— three months into her illicit affair with Abdul.
“He said it was OK and he would support me once I give birth. He, however, told me that I could not live with him in his cubicle at his relative’s house. He said I should stay at our home but he wouldn’t abandon me,” she says.
The young man has since moved to Nairobi to look for a job. Risper says he is “hustling” in the big city, and he occasionally sends her Sh500 a month for upkeep.
But Risper is not alone. Most of her peers are either pregnant or nursing babies they cannot take care of.
Ms Pamela Akello, the Education director in Vihiga, says the county has a high incidence of adolescent pregnancies.
“This is attributed to high poverty levels and very high population. Vihiga has a very small coverage of arable land, which is not enough to sustain the high population,” she says.
High school students and pupils in Standard Five and Six have borne the brunt of teenage pregnancies, with 10-year-olds having their sexual debut and becoming sexually active.
“Because of poverty, parents go to look for jobs in big cities and leave their children under the care of grandparents who cannot instill discipline in them,” says the director.
The vulnerable girls are exposed to the risk sexual exploitation by sex pests at local markets such as Chavakali. Gambogi, Kiboswa, Mbale and Lwanda, where the minors work part time.
On market days, absenteeism from class is highest, with most children out in the market hawking groundnuts.
Figures at Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicate that 37 per cent of girls and 44 per cent of boys aged 15-19 have already had sexual intercourse. Out of these, 13 per cent of girls and nine per cent of the boys were reported to be sexually active.
According to Dianne Stewart, United Nations Population Fund’s Director of Information, the consequences of adolescent pregnancy are dire.
“Adolescent girls who are marginalised, out of school, married at an early age and living in poor households have limited access to comprehensive sexuality education,” she says.
Dr Jason Amukonyi, Vihiga District Medical Officer, says teenage pregnancies could be fatal because the girls’ bodies are not well-developed and susceptible to complications at delivery.
What is worrying is that most of these pregnant girls give birth at home under the care of traditional birth attendants who cannot provide specialised healthcare. As a result, they are at risk of suffering fistula, raptured uterus and unsafe abortion.
“I have encountered several cases where the baby was too big to be delivered normally. Sometimes, the uterus raptures and the baby goes up to the abdomen and this calls for an emergency operation, only to find that the baby is already dead,” says Dr Amukonyi.
Statistics indicate that 300,000 abortions are procured every year in Kenya, with 60 per cent of the cases involving women below 25 years. Of these 2,600 women die due to unsafe abortions.
Dr Joachim Osur, a reproductive health specialist, says some of those who survive the abortions contract serious infections while others become totally infertile.
“Sometimes the uterus is removed because of injury caused during the abortion. Some infections totally destroy the system and the women are not able to conceive again,” he says.
Although there are no specific statistics of young women and girls procuring abortions in western Kenya, Dr Osur suspects the number could be high due to the region’s poor maternal health indicators.
“Most young girls and women in this region use herbs or swallow different forms of medicines such as Panadol and quinine to disrupt pregnancies. We have also had cases of women inserting sharp sticks and they end up pricking themselves so badly and causing a lot of damage,” he says.