“My father took me to jail when I discovered I was pregnant.” (Baba yangu alinipeleka jela wakati niligundua kuwa nina mimba). This was the toughest time in my life. I did not know what to do. I almost committed suicide.” *Phionah Mladzini begins her story.
It is 10 am on a very hot, humid, sunny morning. The bell rings, pupils dressed in grey skirts, grey shorts and purple tops quickly rush out of the classes. Suddenly the school is noisy with a beehive of activities, among them girls playing a skipping rope.
This is Dabaso primary school in Kilifi County, at Kenya’s coastal region. Dabaso primary School is famous for a reason. It accommodates the largest number of teen mothers. Among them is Phionah Mladzini who is in class eight and has a three-year-old baby living with her at a rescue center.
Short, slim with short hair, a shy looking Mladzini who speaks very fluent Swahili carry’s a story of hope and triumph. She is among the 14,000 girls who get pregnant every year in Kilifi County, making the county rank the highest in Kenya.
Mladzini who comes from Milano village confides in me what lead her to get lured by a classmate back in 2016 and later got pregnant.
“My father was raising me alone and he did not have any form of income, my mother ran away when I was in class three. Life was tough; I used to beg for food and other necessities like soap and clothes. No one cared about me and this boy tried to show me some compassion by offering little gifts like food which made me convinced that he really cared for me. I did not know that I would get pregnant.” Mladzini pauses and a tear drops down her cheek. The pain of a defiled child still haunts her, years later.
She recalls how her father took her to juvenile remand in Malindi, a nearby prison. “When my father discovered that I was pregnant, he made me get arrested by police officers who took me to remand saying that I was to wait there for the father of my baby. I did not know where he was by then, I stayed there for one week while sick.”
Mladzini was later rescued by Pope Francis Rescue Center. They took her in until she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl called *Luck Katunda. At the rescue center, she started seeing signs of hope and a bright future. They transferred her to another rescue center where they enrolled her at Dabaso school. At the school she was welcome by both hands, found other many girls who had similar cases to hers and therefore she felt at home.
Similarly, Loice Sidi is mother to a nine-month-old baby. She got pregnant with a Boda Boda (Rider).
“I was lured by this man into sex because he used to give me money every day. My parents had no money and they did not care to look for ways to feed the family.”
Saada and Mladzini are among the many teenage mothers/girls who have found support at Dabaso Primary school. They are now back to learning and can now see a bright future.
According to Esther Kuto, Head teacher Dabaso Primary School, the school has recorded the highest retention of girls in the county. “Not all public schools admit teenage mothers, here we admit them and none of them is turned away.” Kuto gets very serious as she talks about this issue of teenage pregnancies.
She points out that this crisis is brought about by cultural, illiteracy among parents and poverty in the region. “Many parents here have not gone to school and therefore they do not take education seriously. Poverty is also a challenge that makes many girls vulnerable.
Kuto notes that at her school they have put mechanisms to fight stigma among the girls. “We have rock club, a club that helps our girls in teaching them about life skills and also we have teachers who help in counseling. We also have our girls enrolled to the Wasichana Wetu Wafaulu (Let our girls succeed) Project which is funded by UK Government, implemented by Education Development Trust and works closely with other partners including Kesho Kenya.”
Through the Wasichana Wetu Wafaulu Project, girls are supported to transit to the next level of education. They get bursaries, school kits and those that have very needy parents receive a cash transfer every month.
Eunice Mwahonga, a nurse at Mtepeni Dispensary, Kilifi, confirms that they attend to pregnant girls between 12-19 years. “These girls come here for antenatal clinics. Many come with nutrition related issues and when giving birth the young one really struggles and tears up. This is because their birth canals are not fully developed by the time of delivery.”
The grim statistics of teenage pregnancies in Kilifi County can be attributed to many factors among them child neglect, according to George Migosi, Children Services Coordinator, Kilifi County. “Last year over 14,000 children aged between 10-13 years got pregnant in this County.” He confirms.
Migosi further reveals that Kilifi County has alarming figures of teenage mothers. He says that they work closely with partners to attain a certain level of child protection.
“Generally, transition from primary school to secondary is very low here in Kilifi. We need more partnership to help the girls transition to the next level. Not all may want to go back to high school but they can still acquire a technical skill.”
Migosi further reveals that they are facing some challenges at the children department. “We do not have very accurate data on how many teenage mothers are out there, we only depend on figures from the health sector, we need support to map out these teenage mothers to come up with proper mechanisms on how they can be helped.”
A recent qualitative Study on Teenage Pregnancy in Kilifi Conducted by Faith to Action Network found out that there is widespread consensus across Kilifi that the issue of early teen pregnancies for young girls aged 12-19 years as alarming.
The study found out that teenage pregnancies’ hotspot as; Ganze including Bamba areas, Magarini sub-county, Mtwapa, Kilifi and Malindi towns. These areas are noted to have livelihood problems that go with cultural erosion and sex tourism.
Ustandh Ali Omar, Imam, Makaomoto Mosque in Kilifi accepts that teenage pregnancy is a major problem in the region. He affirms that Islam condemns early pregnancies. However, the problem is already there, all they do is to talk to young girls in school and teach them on the importance of chastity. “We work closely with Kesho Kenya, a local organization that supports girls to try and bring them back to school. “
On the same note, Kennedy Chikodza, a pastor at Light of God Evangelization says that it is important for the girls to be taught by their parents about fearing God and upholding the Bible teachings. “We have a big challenge here and therefore we need joint efforts to restore our girls. As a church we go to schools and teach the girls about good morals. We tell them that they can wait until marriage. We also include boys because they are part of the problem. “
In 1994 Kenya introduced ‘return to school’ policy for teenage mothers. A girl that gets pregnant is allowed to remain in school for as long as she wants. After delivery, she can go back to school or apply for admission into another secondary school, if she feels she is discriminated against. The policy also says that pregnant schoolgirls and their parents are entitled to counseling. This policy has helped some girls to go back to school in Kilifi County, while others completely drop out of school.
Kenya has also ascribed to both International and local commitments aimed at child protection rights and sexuality. For example, the Maputo Protocol 2007-2010, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) ratified in 1990 and the Kenyan Constitution, among many others. Despite these commitments, children and teenagers still face many challenges, one of them being teenage pregnancies.
Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect teenage mothers. The story was carried with informed, signed consent by the school authorities and Children Services Office, Kilifi County.