Note to readers: EL PAÍS offers openly all the content of the Future Planet section for its daily and global information contribution on the 2030 Agenda, the eradication of poverty and inequality, and the progress of developing countries. If you want to support our journalism, subscribe here.
The sound of a bell announces a short break. A group of girls leave class on their way to the dormitories, where between bunk beds, those who are pregnant rest while others breastfeed their children. Since January, the Kenyan boarding school Serene Haven has become an educational oasis for teenage mothers from the covid generation. “Most of the girls we host became pregnant during the pandemic, even small babies were conceived during confinement,” explains Kelvin Ndegwa, co-founder with his wife, Elizabeth Muriuki – more than a decade ago also a teenage mother – of this new center that includes a nursery service, psychological support and weekly medical check-ups.
In the first five months of 2020 alone, nearly 152,000 young people under 19 years of age became pregnant in Kenya, according to a survey conducted by the national Health Information System; This figure could have doubled since then given the prolonged period of school closings or the difficulty of affording contraceptives, among other factors. “Adolescent mothers are denied their education, which is a basic right. That is the void we want to fill ”, sums up Ndegwa about the urgency of opening this kind of hybrid boarding school in Nyeri county (center). “We consider ourselves human rights defenders,” he adds enthusiastically.
According to his calculations, only at the end of this year, the school will give shelter to a hundred students, “which translates into 200 people with babies,” he clarifies. While the Ministry of Education guidelines stipulate that any pregnant girl must “stay in school as long (as possible)” and sign “a letter of commitment” to return to school six months after giving birth, few they get to do it.
Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, there were 948 daily teenage pregnancies in Kenya and, each year, some 13,000 girls dropped out of school due to stigma, time incompatibility or lack of resources, according to government data. “When you are pregnant, colleagues marginalize you. Maybe you had a group of five friends and you find yourself walking alone, with no one to talk to or who can understand you. You can even end up with depression ”, confesses Stacie, 17 years old and five months pregnant, about the strong social stigma that makes many do not want to go to high school.
On the contrary, in Serene Haven they feel that they are among equals, that no one is there to judge them or remind them of what they did or did not do wrong, and that, with effort, they will be able to finish their studies year by year while they watch their children grow up. “Unlike a day school, here I can breastfeed my baby until the age I want. Also, I know when he is sick, I have him close and our bond strengthens ”, reflects Rose, 17 years old and mother of a baby of almost five months. Although her case seems to be the most common – she became pregnant after having risky sex with her boyfriend – a few girls in the center were raped or sold by their parents to get a dowry.
Sex out of necessity
The fact that unwanted pregnancies increase when schools are closed is not new, and as Lisa Bos, director of government relations at the ONG World Vision, already happened during the Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa in 2014, where only in Sierra Leone it is estimated that their number doubled in the eight months that there was no education. “Teachers generally monitor girls and can intervene if they detect signs of abuse,” Bos said in a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO). “When schools close, girls are left unsupervised and, in the worst case, exposed to predatory relatives and neighbors.”
In turn, in the case of the coronavirus and according to a survey carried out by the Kenyan organization White Ribbon Alliance from April to May 2020, there has been a marked increase in consensual sexual relations, being “idleness and boredom” the main reasons indicated by the young women. “I don’t think this would have happened to me if I had had a school,” acknowledges Stacie, who assures that before COVID-19 she didn’t even have time to interact with the kids in her area. In September she was absent, took a positive pregnancy test and, shortly after, made an appointment for a clandestine abortion. He never showed up because of fear.
However, for Susan Nyawira, a social worker at this center, there is a fine line between supposedly tacit relationships and those born out of necessity. “During COVID-19, even having food has been a problem, so many of these pregnancies are the result of poverty: the boyfriend gives you money to buy compresses, mandazis (typical Kenyan sweet), and so on. But he hopes that you also give yourself in return ”, he explains.
Many of these pregnancies are the result of poverty: the boyfriend gives you money to buy towels, mandazis (typical Kenyan sweet), and so on. But hope that you also give yourself in return
Susan Nyawira, social worker
In the half-furnished bedroom, baby cries mingle with the soft lullabies of Susan and Lydia Wairimu, a midwife and caregiver, who walk back and forth carrying a couple of babies each between fabrics. There are no toys or children’s books, just colorful blankets on the beds, plastic cups and some suitcases ajar with teenagers and children’s clothes. “(These babies) are innocent,” Wairimu, originally from Nyeri, confesses affectionately, who in January decided to dedicate her time altruistically – from Sunday to Sunday – taking care of these creatures. “I am excited to see mothers attend class: it is a second chance,” he adds. “They may not realize it now, but if they study and finish their education they will soon be aware (of what they achieved) and they will remember who their midwife was,” she is delighted.