September 10, 2012
NAIROBI, KENYA – Sofia Atieno is just 16, but she is already the mother of a 1-year-old son, Erastus Owino.
Atieno, an orphan, lives in Mathare, a sprawling slum of Nairobi, the capital, where she takes care of her son and her younger brother, Thomas Omondi, 13. She says her mother died when she was 7, and her father died in 2009, both after short illnesses.
She says she became sexually active after her father died. She was in seventh grade. Atieno says her father never talked openly about sex, a taboo subject in Kenya.
“How could he even start talking to me about sex?” she asks shyly.
But she says that his absence allowed her to become more promiscuous. The following year, 2010, she got pregnant and dropped out of school.
She says the father of her unborn child vanished, so she has had to take care of their son all by herself. She does casual labor in the slums to earn money, taking on odd jobs like doing laundry and cleaning.
She says the three of them survive on her earnings of about 200 shillings KES ($2.10 USD) per day. She pays 800 shillings KES ($8.40 USD) to rent a tiny room in the slum.
Atieno didn’t receive sex education in school. She says sex is not talked about openly here because it is considered an “immoral topic,” according to the religious teachings administered during Christian religious education, a subject taught within the school curriculum.
“I lost my virginity when I was 13, even though I knew nothing much about sex,” she says with her eyes fixed on the ground.
While sex remains a taboo topic in Kenyan and African society as a whole, the increasing rates of HIV, AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, STIs, and teenage pregnancies have prompted teachers to call for formal sex education in schools.
Last month, about 150 students from Fish High School in Kenya’s Coast province were forced to go home after contracting an STI that spread like bushfire within the school, according to a report aired on a local television channel.
In response, nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have tried to introduce educational programs in schools. Religious authorities vary in their views of sex education, but they agree it should be approached with caution. As society slowly shifts its view, younger parents say they are more open to discussing sex with children than older parents are. The government has not announced any plans to include sex education in the formal school curriculum, and officials tend to shy away from the topic.
About 12 percent of female and 20 percent of male respondents ages 15 to 49 said they had had sexual intercourse by age 15, according to the most recent Kenya Demographic and Health Survey from 2008-2009. Nearly half of females and more than half of males had sex by age 18. Nearly all surveyed knew of at least one method of contraception. More than 13,000 girls drop out of school each year, accounting for 31 percent of all dropout rates among girls here, according to the Forum for African Women Educationalists, a Pan-African NGO.
In Kenya, about half of males and females ages 15 to 24 have comprehensive knowledge of HIV, according to UNICEF. Whereas nearly 65 percent of males in this age group used a condom last time they had sex with a partner they weren’t married to or living with, only 40 percent of females did.
Lillian Nyawira, a teacher and owner of Amazing Kindercare Academy in Nairobi, says that changes in societal norms and increased access to information through advanced technology demand that both parents and teachers take responsibility for talking to children about sexual matters from early stages of development to help them make informed choices.
“It is no longer a matter of silence because of moral degradation in the society and the fact that kids have access to information through different media and sometimes parents have no control over what they view,” she says.
She says kids in upper primary school have a right to know and learn about sex, especially with the blossoming rates of rape cases and HIV infections. She says that approaching the subject from a biblical standpoint could work for children younger than 10, who might not grasp all the concepts yet.
“This education should not only focus on abstinence, but also on the dangers of premarital sex,” she says.
Michael Gachuhu, the school director and a father of two, agrees with Nyawira that teachers should get involved. But he cautions against parents abandoning their responsibilities when it comes to educating their children about sex and leaving the task entirely to teachers.
“Teachers only complement what parents do, and there might be little that a school curriculum can do without the support of parents in modeling their children,” he says.
He says that religious and cultural authorities may not approve of openly discussing sex, but that it is high time to demystify the subject in school because of the way it has pervaded society. He says the approach will vary by age.
“Sex education should be introduced systematically at different levels in schools,” he says.
Religious authorities give mixed opinions when it comes to sex education, but most emphasize caution.
The Rev. Patrick Kanja, Catholic chaplain of the University of Nairobi, says that if sex must be taught in schools, then it should be done with the value, respect and the dignity that it deserves. He also says that the information must have a good Christian foundation.
“The issue of contraceptives, for instance, should be taught with the disclaimer that they are not good,” Kanja says.
On the other hand, the Rev. Henry Musuluma, pastor of the Assemblies for Christian Churches International, a local Protestant Church, says it is the right of the children to know and learn about sex and to understand that sex is God-given and should not be abused.
Rosemary Wangao, an accountant, says she never spoke with her son, Francis Otieno, 22, about sex when he was growing up.
“I have no control over what he does now because I never nurtured an open communications strategy ever since he was a child,” she says. “I even don’t trust what he does, especially when he is on Internet.”
She says this is because sex is taboo in Kenyan society.
“Sex has been and is still a taboo subject and talking about it openly may deem one immoral,” she says. “Perhaps if it is openly taught in schools in this era of so many sexually related problems, it will help our children know how to cope with such problems.”
But for many, perspectives seem to be changing.
Respah Kusienya, a Nairobi resident and mother of 7-year-old twins, Rozah and Zorah, says she has already started preparing her daughters about the topic. She says that if schools introduce sex education in the curriculum and parents also do their part, kids will be more open and will make informed choices.
“Yes, I think it is important for children so be educated on sex,” she says. “I feel it would be appropriate to talk to them about sex, STDs, HIV from age of 7 and above. As a parent, you can start off by educating what is relevant to their age and proceed on into more serious issues that can affect them before they start getting sexually active.”
In a recent study, 65 percent of youths sampled said they wanted sex education to be included in the formal school curriculum and parents to be involved in issues related to sexual health, according to the Center for the Study of Adolescents, CSA, a regional organization that promotes the health and development of young people through research, advocacy and capacity building.
Albert Obbuyi, CSA’s chief executive officer, calls sex education the vaccine for addressing all sexuality problems that children face from primary to high school because sexuality is a universal experience to all people. He says that the government isn’t doing enough.
“Although the government introduced the life skills curriculum in schools in 2008-09 as a measure towards sexuality education, advocacy initiatives to comprehensively address sexual and reproductive health in schools is still not sustainable,” he says.
Obbuyi says that CSA has tried to initiate programs in schools. In 2007, CSA launched a computer program called “The World Starts With Me” to promote sexual and reproductive health education in schools. It collaborated on the program with the Ministry of Education and the Dutch World Population Foundation, an international nonprofit organization aimed at improving the quality of life by ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.
“The program initially started with five schools in Nairobi but has so far reached out to 129 schools, covering Nairobi, Nyanza, Coast and Central regions,” he says. “We have been able to reach out to over 6,000 school-going youth both in primary and high school levels with the help of about 300 trained teachers.”
The game aims to improve and promote safer sexual behavior and delay the onset of sexual activity among young people, he says. Obbuyi says he is optimistic that if all Kenyan schools formalized a program like this, it could significantly contribute to addressing health and other social challenges that young people face as they grow up.
“Sexuality education may not solve all sexually related problems in the society but can help youths make informed decisions,” he says.
Obbuyi proposes using the UNESCO guidelines for sex education, which teaches children about the risks of sexual activities, contraceptives and the negative effects of abortion.
“It is about empowering them to make informed decisions,” he says.
The government has showed no signs throughout the years of integrating sex education into the formal school curriculum.
For example, in 1997, then-President Daniel Arap Moi shelved a paper on sex education and family life that was to be presented in Parliament, saying it was not only immoral, but also bound to expose students to “tabia mbaya,” which means “bad manners” in Swahili.
Junior ministers in the Ministry of Education declined to comment on the current government’s position toward sex education. Curriculum developers from Kenya Institute of Education, a semiautonomous governmental organization, say they need permission to comment. The director hasn’t responded to permission requests.