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KENYA: Teenage Mothers Denied Education

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, May 23 2008 (IPS) - At 17, Julia Metito* (*not her real name) should be in her final year in secondary school in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, but three years ago she had to leave school to give birth and then nurse a child. Today, she finds herself in Class Seven with 13-year-olds. 13,000 girls leave school every year in Kenya due to pregnancy, according to research released at the beginning of May by the Centre for the Study of Adolescence, a non-governmental organisation that works on reproductive health, gender and social policy for teenagers.

"A teacher in my former school was responsible but he denied that he even knew my name!" Metito told IPS in an interview in Nairobi.

Her son, now aged three, lives with her mother in Narok District, some 70 kilometres south of Nairobi.

"My classmates in my former school would laugh at me when they realised I was pregnant," Metito said. "They even drew cartoons to illustrate my condition on the blackboard just to ridicule me. It was really stressful and when my mother insisted that I go back to school after taking care of my son for two years, I cried. By then I had given up my dream of becoming a lawyer one day."

But she agreed to resume her studies when her mother enrolled her in a different school. Her small body does not easily give away her age and none of her new classmates know she is a mother, which allows her peace of mind to concentrate on her studies.

The report, 'Down the Drain: Counting the Costs of Teenage Pregnancy and School Dropout in Kenya', shows that while only 35 percent of girls between the ages of 16 and 20 are in school, 50 percent of boys the same age attend. Yet enrolment of boys and girls in lower primary is almost equal.

The report says pregnancy – along with early marriage, poverty and preferential treatment for boys – is a major factor in the higher dropout rate for girls. Another report by the Centre for the Study of Adolescence, titled 'The Situation of Young People in Kenya', and released jointly with Save the Children Sweden on May 13, found that by age 19, 48 percent of young women in Kenya have had a first child.

Stigma and discrimination by teachers are reported as two of the main reasons teenage mothers abandon their education. Nineteen-year-old Rhoda Moraa* left school when she became pregnant during her first year in secondary school.

"I lost an opportunity then. My classmates who passed examinations are now in first year at university. I know I too could have been in university because I was among the brightest in my class but then this happened," Moraa told IPS in an interview.

After the birth of her child, Moraa wanted to continue with her education, but her parents wouldn't hear of it; instead they blamed her for wasting money.

"My father reminds me all the time that I owe him money – the fees he paid – just to make me feel bad," Moraa said. "My hope is to educate my daughter to the highest level. For me, my time of going to school is up and now my hope lies in marriage."

There are several laws that should protect young mothers' right to an education. Samuel Otieno, programme manager with the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Nairobi, said the major problem with the law is that the Education Act has not been properly implemented.

"The act allows girls to stay in school up to the time they deliver, and resume their studies as soon as they are strong enough to. If a girl is denied this chance, then the parents or the girl can report to the nearest education ministry office and have the school compelled to re-admit her based on the Children Act or the Education Act," Otieno told IPS.

However, many head teachers expel girls immediately their pregnancy is discovered. Most girls lack support from parents, teachers or their classmates to challenge the expulsion. They may also feel they deserve to be punished or feel too shy to re-join their classmates.

Kenya also has a Return to School policy which encourages the establishment of centres where young mothers could continue with their formal education while breast-feeding their children. It also calls for counselling for the girl, parents, teachers and other students in the school.

"Many schools prefer to expel pregnant girls who are seen as a bad influence on other girls in the school," Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando, the centre’s executive director told IPS. "The lack of legal backing or any official communication on how this guideline is to be implemented makes the policy weak and inconsistent. Many parents are either unaware of its existence or just ignore it," she added.

Ignorance of the re-entry policy’s existence – even among the head teachers who are supposed to implement it – frustrates its success. A head teacher quoted in the report says, "When a parent came asking to have the daughter re-admitted and said that she had been told that there is a policy allowing that I was quite stunned. I had to ask for a copy of the policy just to be sure…"

Those who oppose girls’ return to school argue that allowing these teenage mothers back to school would trigger multiplier effect among other girls.

"Many school principals, parents, teachers and students are unaware of the existence of guidelines. When you add stigma, both self and from school and community to the mix, the policy becomes harder to implement," explained Onyando.

Twahir Mbarak Said, the director of education for Nairobi province, explained that the government introduced the re-entry policy because schools are not able to give new teenage mothers appropriate facilities to care for their children while they continue with their studies.

"But the policy permits girls to go home to deliver and nurse their children and thereafter they are free to rejoin their former schools without hindrance from school administration, parents or society. The ministry’s policy guideline is to ensure access to quality education of our children without any form of discrimination," Mbarak said.

Mbarak blames social and cultural standards for girls’ failure to resume their education after pregnancy. "It has been held over the years by various communities and individuals that continuity in education for a girl terminates at the altar of pregnancy."

It is not yet clear whether the new policy truly demonstrates a new commitment to implementation from government. Thousands of young mothers can only hope so.

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