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The COVID Lockdown: Unintended Consequences
Global Citizen estimates that more than 152,000 teenage girls in Kenya became pregnant between March and May 2020 due to economic hardship during the country’s nationwide COVID lockdown.1
This represents a staggering 40 percent increase in Kenya’s monthly average. While the global community has celebrated and commended world leaders for their swift action to shut down schools and businesses to keep us “safe,” too few have questioned the unintended consequences of severe measures that particularly disadvantage those in poor, rural, and developing communities.
Many families in rural Kenya found themselves unable to afford simple goods like soap and drinkable water.
Teen pregnancy is not new in Kenya. Roughly 13,000 young girls drop out of school each year to have children, the National Council for Population and Development reports.2 Through the COVID-induced lockdowns, however, unintended teen pregnancies have skyrocketed. Some have gone so far as to call the phenomenon a “shadow pandemic.”3 This massive surge in teen pregnancies can be explained by a number of factors, but most outrageous perhaps are three elements: availability of showers, access to reproductive facilities, and an inability to procure hygiene necessities like sanitary pads.
Unintended Teen Pregnancies: Drivers behind the Surge
It should come as no surprise that with the lockdown came a severe upheaval in unemployment for families throughout Kenya. This was exceptionally taxing on the population. A 2020 comprehensive poverty report published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics found that a third of Kenya’s population was already living below the poverty line.4 Unsurprisingly, many families in rural Kenya found themselves unable to afford simple goods like soap and drinkable water, explains Mercy Chege, program director at Plan International Kenya.5 According to Chege, the Kenyan government provided sanitary pads to teenage girls at school prior to the lockdown, but this service was discontinued when learning went remote. This resulted in many teen girls becoming indebted to older men who promised to loan them the required funds in exchange for sexual services.
Girls younger than 19 were often exposed to exploitation by men who demanded sex in exchange for hygiene essentials like taking a shower. This occurred in a country where, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), some settlements only have one water point per 1,000 people.6 As Chege recounts, “many would go for days without taking a bath and would do anything to appease someone who promised them such small luxuries.”7 Before the pandemic, the going rate for these “luxuries” was 14 cents. Now, many men are demanding sexual favors from these women who cannot afford to pay.
The stark upsurge in teen pregnancies was fueled by the inability of young girls to source any kind of reproductive health care after this sexual coercion. This was primarily due to the government’s decision to redirect efforts toward flattening the COVID-19 curve. According to Dr. Manisha Kumar at Médecins Sans Frontières, “The collateral damage of taking that kind of approach is when we shut down these routine services [for girls], we saw an increase in maternal and child death from preventive causes.”8
The Stigma Awaits: Ridicule and Rejection within the Community
The bitter reality is that many of these teen mothers will be subjected to “stigma, rejection or violence by partners, parents and peers,” as the World Health Organization reports.9 This stigma is not particular to Kenya, however, as widespread misogynistic attitudes that lead to blaming teen victims for their “negligence” is common in the region. As one mother in Sierra Leone expressed: “I would not allow my daughter to sit in class with someone pregnant—that’s a very bad influence.”10 The same unsympathetic rhetoric is echoed by some teachers who have been known to be unwelcoming to pregnant students in the classroom.11
Girls younger than 19 were often exposed to exploitation by men who demanded sex in exchange for hygiene essentials like taking a shower.
In an effort to relieve such burdens on teen mothers, the Kenyan Ministry of Education rolled out a set of mandates to ensure a more inclusive and discrimination-free environment at schools. These efforts have proven ineffective as the culture at most Kenyan schools has remained unaccommodating toward these young girls’ circumstances.12 Chege remembers an occasion in which a teacher told her students to consult with a teenage mother in class about sex, since she was supposedly “an expert on this topic,” despite the fact that she was a victim of rape.13
The Way Forward: Getting Teen Mothers back to School
The Kenyan government prides itself on having begun implementing the Educational Re-Entry Policy for Girls after Teenage Pregnancy as early as 1994. The policy was established to guarantee that teen mothers could re-enroll and complete their studies free of stigma. A host of studies, however, have highlighted that, despite the favorable provisions of the policy, the implementation has been less promising. Critics of the policy have pointed to low parental involvement and support;14 little awareness of the policy among key stakeholders including teachers, school administrators, guardians, and teen mothers;15 significant stigmatization and social marginalization of teen mothers within school environments;16 and discrepancies in implementation of the policy.17
In order to combat these limitations—and ensure these teen mothers’ educational rights are not infringed—four supplemental policies are required.
Reduce Financial Barriers
An April 2020 study by the Kenyan Ministry of Health found that “68% of participants had skipped a meal or eaten less in the past two weeks because of COVID-19.”18 The financial hit from lockdowns often causes parents and guardians to be less supportive of sending pregnant girls back to school, especially when a child working appears to be a much more lucrative return on investment. As the Brookings Institution reports, “waiving school and examination fees could facilitate girls’ return to school” by easing these financial pressures on families.19 Moreover, the World Bank stated that “providing cash transfers . . . has proven effective in enabling girls and marginalized learners to attend school” in nearby Zambia.20 This finding was corroborated by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation through conducting a systematic review that studied 216 education-focused cash-transfer programs.21
The Educational Re-Entry Policy is a great stepping stone to ensuring teenage mothers do not have to trade their education for raising their children.
Ensure Clear and Targeted Communication
In order to gauge the awareness of the Educational Re-Entry Policy, researchers at the Population Council in Kenya interviewed 728 teen mothers along with their household heads in Homa Bay County. They were shocked to learn that “over a third of teenage mothers and their household heads were not aware of the provisions of [the policy].”22 Even more shocking was the finding that one-third of the 167 school principals interviewed were unaware of the policy.23 These findings highlight how imperative communication is in ensuring young mothers are guided back to school. This communication must be accompanied by a robust outreach campaign centered on public awareness, with tailored messages facilitating a change in harmful gender norms that limit a young woman’s potential.24
Create Stigma-Free Educational Spaces
As underscored above, most Kenyan schools have not been able to provide discrimination-free environments for pregnant students. This is largely due to the fact that biases and negative attitudes toward teen mothers are deeply rooted in misogynistic cultural norms that will not transform in the short term. It is crucial to set up intermediate spaces exclusive to pregnant teen girls where they can focus on their studies in a setting that is both free from stigma and catered toward their special needs. One prime example is Serene Haven Rescue Centre in Nyeri. Serene Haven was established in the wake of the COVID-related teen pregnancy surge to provide special services for expecting student mothers. These students benefit from in-house therapists who provide counsel to the new mothers while they receive a state-certified education.25 Further, these students are able to take advantage of special arrangements unique to their circumstances such as breastfeeding, which a typical school would find difficult to implement due to pushback from other children’s parents.26
Mandate Constant Monitoring and Evaluation
The best way to safeguard against discrepancies in the implementation of the Educational Re-Entry Policy is to enforce constant monitoring and evaluation at the local level. It is vital that the government, in partnership with other key stakeholders, establishes standards that are consistently applied across all schools, monitors the effectiveness of these standards, and proposes amendments as necessary. Without proper observation and examination, the government will miss out on important insights and feedback from stakeholders, meaning that successful tactics in supporting young girls will not be recognized and replicated across the nation. Finally, monitoring and evaluation are a fundamental part of the execution phase, since they are a prime accountability mechanism.27
The Educational Re-Entry Policy is a great stepping stone to ensuring teenage mothers do not have to trade their education for raising their children. In order for it to be effective, however, a community-based approach is essential. Only then will the policy enable the solutions required for young girls to resume their education, maintain their health, and advance their aspirations.
Majd Steitieh is a second-year student in the master’s in public policy program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (HKS) and a Rawabi Fellow. Majd is focused on social and urban policy and comes from a multidisciplinary background that includes management consulting, financial services, and fashion design. Prior to HKS, she worked in the private sector as a management consultant focusing on issues centered around public safety.
Photo credit: Unsplash – Kimberly Farmer
 Sophie Partridge-Hicks, “Rise in Teenage Pregnancies in Kenya Linked to COVID-19 Lockdown,” Global Citizen (blog), 19 August 2020, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/rise-in-teenage-pregnancies-during-kenya-lockdown.
 Glory Ngatha Muturi, “Teenage Pregnancy in Kenya: Gloom and Doom in Education, Health,” National Council for Population and Development, 6 March 2020, https://ncpd.go.ke/teenage-pregnancy-in-kenya/.
 Peter Muiruri, “’Sex for sanitary pads’: how Kenya’s lockdown led to a rise in teenage pregnancy,” The Guardian, 23 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/24/sex-for-sanitary-pads-how-kenyas-lockdown-led-to-a-rise-in-teenage-pregnancy.
 Paul Wafula, “Kenya: Sad Reality of 23.4 Million Kenyans Living Below Poverty Line,” All Africa (blog), 12 August 2020, https://allafrica.com/stories/202008120697.html.
 Muiruri, “’Sex for sanitary pads’.”
 “‘Diseases will not wait’ for COVID-19 in Kenya,” Doctors Without Borders, 5 May 2020, https://www.msf.org/diseases-will-not-wait-msf-response-covid-19-kenya.
 Muiruri, “’Sex for sanitary pads’.”
 Partridge-Hicks, “Rise in Teenage Pregnancies in Kenya.”
 “Adolescent pregnancy,” World Health Organization, 31 January 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-pregnancy.
 Penny Spiller, “Pregnant at 13 and able to attend school,” BBC, 29 December 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55326814.
 Spiller, “Pregnant at 13.”
 Muiruri, “’Sex for sanitary pads’.”
 Muiruri, “’Sex for sanitary pads’.”
 Violet Wekesa, “Re-Admission Policy and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education Performance in Bungoma North Sub-County, Kenya,” International Journal of Innovative Research & Development 3, no. 7 (2014): 436–41.
 Jayne Wangui Mwenje-Macharia and David Kipkasi Kessio, “Investigation of Re-Entry of Student Mothers in Secondary Schools in Kenya,” International Journal of Humanities Social Sciences and Education 2, no. 12 (2015): 46–50.
 George Onyango, Felix Ngunzo Kioli, and Erick Nyambedha, “Challenges of School Re-entry among Teenage Mothers in Primary Schools in Muhoroni District, Western Kenya,” SSRN, 8 January 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/srrn.2546761.
 Kodek Migiro Omwancha, “The implementation of an educational re-entry policy for girls after teenage pregnancy: A case study of public secondary schools in Kuria District, Kenya” (doctoral thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2012).
 Population Council, Kenya: COVID-19 Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices & Needs (Nairobi: Ministry of Health, 2020) [PDF file], https://www.popcouncil.org/uploads/pdfs/2020PGY_CovidKenyaKAPStudyResultsBriefRound2.pdf.
 Robert Jenkins and Rebecca Winthrop, “5 actions to help bring the most marginalized girls back to school after COVID-19.” Brookings (blog), 15 May 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/05/15/5-actions-to-help-bring-the-most-marginalized-girls-back-to-school-after-covid-19/.
 Ioana Botea and Sophia Friedson-Ridenour, “Lessons from Zambia: How to bring adolescent girls back to school post-COVID-19,” World Bank (blog), 28 July 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/nasikiliza/lessons-zambia-how-bring-adolescent-girls-back-school-post-covid-19.
 Paul Thissen, “What works to improve school enrollment and attendance? Cash,” International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (blog), 14 January 2020, https://www.3ieimpact.org/blogs/what-works-improve-school-enrollment-and-attendance-cash.
 Chi-Chi Undie, Harriet Birungi, and George Odwe, “Expanding Access to Secondary School Education for Teenage Mothers in Kenya,” Population Council, 2020, https://www.popcouncil.org/research/expanding-access-to-secondary-school-education-for-teenage-mothers-in-kenya.
 Undie et al., “Expanding Access to Secondary School Education.”
 Jenkins and Winthrop, “5 actions to help bring the most marginalized girls back to school.”
 Maureen Kasuku, “Teen Mums Offered a Second Chance at Serene Haven Rescue Centre.” Kenya Buzz (blog), 26 January 2021, https://www.kenyabuzz.com/lifestyle/teen-mums-offered-a-second-chance-at-serene-haven-rescue-centre/.
 Alfred Odour, “The Anatomy of Teen Motherhood and Schooling in Kenya.” UKFIET (blog), 18 June 2019, https://www.ukfiet.org/2019/the-anatomy-of-teen-motherhood-and-schooling-in-kenya/.
 Gift Muami Sotonye-Frank, “A Critical Examination of the Suitability of a Human Rights Based Approach for Implementing Girls’ Rights to Education in Nigeria” (master’s thesis, University of Leicester, 2015).