Kenyan Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha has said she won’t provide free condoms to teenagers. She spoke at the African Union Summit 2023 in Addis Ababa, where she said as a Christian woman, she advocates for the use of abstinence as a way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies.
“I am Mama Kanisa (a church woman). Therefore, number one is abstinence, that we teach our youth, our adolescents to abstain,” she said. Nakhumicha was at the joint African Union Development Agency – PEPFAR briefing commemorating 20 years of partnership to End HIV/AIDS as a public health threat in Africa and globally.
Why abstinence-only isn’t effective in preventing teen pregnancies
The Cabinet Secretary’s belief that teenagers should live based on Christian values is misguided. Abstinence-only contraception is ineffective, unhealthy, and a disservice to everyone.
As of 2021, the country reported 35,000 new HIV infections and 22,000 deaths related to AIDS complications. The number reduced from 180,000 in 2010 to 111,500 cases in 2020, but numbers among youth aged 15-24 are concerning.
Teen pregnancies are also worryingly high in the country. Data published by the Ministry of Health states that one in five adolescents aged 15-19 are pregnant or have already had their first child. As a result, the country ranks third in cases of teen pregnancy. Cases rose during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, where many vulnerable girls were subjected to at-home violence. In January 2022, Kenya reported 45,724 teen pregnancies.
The Catholic Church is one of the leading opponents of access to contraception. In Kenya, the church advocates for abstinence because fornication is considered sinful. This creates room for misinformation. Young girls are lied to that sex in certain positions can’t lead to pregnancy. There is also the risk that they could turn to adult entertainment for their sex education which doesn’t always show the safest ways to have sex.
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In 2021, Education, Health, Gender, and Youth Ministers from East and Southern Africa reaffirmed their commitments to empowering the youth. They also vowed to keep protecting their health. One of the ways they promised to do this was by scaling up sex education and making sexual reproductive health services more accessible.
The issue with the government advocating abstinence means it will no longer commit to robust sexual education. There will be no investment in awareness of safe sex practices like STI testing, the best methods of birth control, or learning what consent means. A study in the US found that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t delay sexual initiation or slow, dangerous sexual practices among youth. It also withholds medically necessary information and stigmatizes safe sex.
Such limited education doesn’t adequately prepare young people for sex. This means they can easily spread STIs and increase the risk of pregnancy. The stigma against sex can lead teenagers to hide their sexual activity from any adults around them, including health officers or doctors. They also refuse to buy condoms, the cheapest contraceptive, because of the shame associated with sexual health awareness.
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In comparison, studies show that comprehensive sex education gives teenagers the knowledge to consent to safe sex. It also enables them to choose sexual partners wisely and even gives them the best guidelines on what to do after surviving a sexual assault. This also reduces the risk of STIs.
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The National Council For Population and Development and the National AIDS Control Council listed the main triple threats affecting young girls in the country are:
- teen pregnancies which can lead to high deaths among infants and young mothers
- HIV infection
- gender-based violence
But the Ministry of Health has also stated that you can face imprisonment of up to 20 years for providing contraceptives to underage teens. This makes it challenging to prevent teen pregnancies and the spread of HIV among teenagers.
It’s not possible to stop teenagers from being sexually active. But it’s dangerous to let them keep having sex without safety guidelines. In some counties, 50% of girls cannot return to school because of teen pregnancy and child marriages.
The Health CS should instead commit to enabling better sex education standards among teens, using proven data and science rather than religion to guide policy. Free condoms for teenagers won’t promote immorality. They provide teenagers with a safe way to engage in sex with their peers.
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