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Kenya: Why Luo teenage mothers never go back to school

Summary & Comment: Research by the author reveals the attitudes that lead to the stigma and treatment of young, unmarried girls who become pregnant. Although the reserach was conducted within the Luo culture in Kenya, the attitudes are common among many ethnic groups; and the author points out the long term consequences for the education and future of the young women. CM

Author: Vincent R Okungu Date Written: 19 May 2003
Primary Category: Gender Document Origin: ALL AFRICA NEWS AGENCY
Secondary Category: Kenya Source URL:
Key Words: Luo culture, research on attitudes towards teenage pregnancy

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Why Luo teenage mothers never go back to school

According to research carried out in Bondo district in western Kenya, under Kenyan-Danish Research Project (KEDAHR) , an important cause of teenage pregnancies is lack of information regarding girls’ reproductive life. 

A number of people here seem to be unaware of ways of preventing pregnancies, other than abstinence.  Since it is not practical for every girl to abstain from sex, there would be need for education on safer sexual practices.  But this also has its own problems.

First, the area has a significant Catholic presence; so there is likelihood of stiff resistance to such a move. The Catholic Church in Kenya has vehemently opposed sex education.

Secondly, a lot of people in Bondo are embarrassed to talk about condoms in public, only referring to them as “the good suits.”  Many of them also argue that the condom cannot prevent AIDS, and there are even rumours that some of them are laced with the AIDS virus itself.  “So why bother?” a respondent to the research quipped. 

Religious and cultural barriers are militating against free and informed discussion on reproductive health issues here. These barriers, according to 45-year-old male informant, are further reinforced by lack of adequate information about condoms as a means of preventing both HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancies. A combination of these factors has resulted in escalation of teenage pregnancies. Yet, condoms are amply available and given free in all market centres, and at the beaches.

The KEDAHR research reveals that social stigma attached to teenage pregnancy plays a major role in the inability of girls to resume classes after giving birth.  They face humiliation and isolation whenever they attempt to go back to school. Other children would not freely interact with them, partly at the instigation of teachers, who view the mother-student as a bad influence on other students. 

The rest of the student population is advised to steer clear of her. This negative attitude of teachers towards pregnant girls, who would want to continue with school after delivery, goes against government policy. None of the five pregnancy cases studied in the research resumed school, although some of them were willing to restart, given financial support. This means that the inability to resume school is not only occasioned by the social stigma attached to teenage pregnancy, but also by poverty.

Other girls interviewed said that they were unable to get back to school because they had lost interest. However, it is clear that the Luo culture, which does not welcome conception outside matrimony, plays a major role in the refusal of these girls to resume their studies.

Even with funds available, observers say, these girls are most likely to find the school environment very hostile: “Everyone will be calling me ‘mama.’ I can only resume school in a place where nobody knows that I have a child. It is wrong to be reminded each time that I made a terrible mistake in my life. If I am to be in school, then such ridicule has to be stopped,” complained a 16-year-old pregnant girl, who had already dropped out of school. Other girls argue that even if they were to be taken to a different school far from home, it would still be difficult to hide the fact that they gave birth, and within a short time, everyone would soon know.

Parental attitude towards these girls is also an impediment to school resumption. With little resources at hand, most parents see no point taking back their daughters to school. According to a 40-year old mother, she would rather use the money on other things than “educate a mother.”

Others interpret getting girls to resume school after they have given birth as allowing too much permissiveness in society. They advance a pessimistic view that teenage pregnancy could become a social trend, as other girls would argue that after all, one can always resume school after giving birth.

Worse is the fact that a single teenage pregnancy has, in some cases, been used to victimise all the girls in a family.  Some parents feel a lot of pain when their daughters get pregnant, particularly in secondary school, where parents make a lot of sacrifices to meet the high fees charged.  A girl who gets pregnant while in Form Two (second year of secondary education), for example, is withdrawn from school and is shunned by her father, because in the mind of the latter, she has set a bad precedent and her younger sisters may follow suit.  This might even jeopardise education of all the girls in that family, as the parents get discouraged. 

As a respondent aptly puts it, parents get extremely annoyed with these pregnancies and decide, “to hell with the girls.”  Fathers of two girl-mothers were not remorseful about their decisions; instead, when interviewed during the research, they demanded to be given an example of a girl who gave birth and was taken back to school thereafter.

The most viable explanation to such behaviour (the blanket condemnation of all girls in a household for the perceived mistake of a single girl), say observers, is linked to the reluctance with which parents pay for the education of their daughters.  It is still inconceivable in most areas in Bondo district, that a girl can give birth and actually get back to school.  Fate of girls are presumed sealed the moment they conceive.

Society also plays a role in this because it chides parents willing to take girl-mothers back to school, seeing it as a waste of resources on a girl who will soon conceive again anyway.
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