"I didn't go back to school, because I didn't have anyone to give me advice," "Harriet" told me. "I wish someone would've come to talk to me about school and encourage me." We were sitting in her brother's home in Migori county, western Kenya , in 2018, when she was 17, as her toddler played around our feet.
Harriet, like thousands of teenage girls across Kenya, dropped out of school after she had her child. Her brother took her in when she left home after her mother, instead of protecting her, told her to hide the identity of the father of her child because he was their relative.
Her brother's home was next to a school. She watched longingly as girls arrived at school at dawn while she did her chores, played in the field while she cooked lunch, and left in the afternoon as she prepared dinner. The sound of the school bell carried across the valley at the end of each lesson, a constant reminder of a life that she'd never have.
Like many African countries, Kenya has made a commitment to tackle exclusion in education, providingall children access by 2030. And yet, the government's piecemeal approach to teenage pregnancies threatens its promises for girls' education. Many adolescent mothers are out of school because they are blocked from returning or aren't getting the support they need to return. President Uhuru Kenyatta directed that pregnant schoolgirls should be registered to ensure that they receive ante-natal care but has yet to speak about helping them say in school.
During the Covid-19 crisis, as schools shut down, Kenyan media reported widely about concerns that lockdown conditions contributed to teenage pregnancy. One girl Human Rights Watch spoke to during this period described unimaginable sexual violence she faced at the beginning of the lockdown. But the government did not address girls' safety during this period.
While the problem of education and teen pregnancies may have been exacerbated by government's closure of schools to curb the spread of coronavirus, it is not a new problem in Kenya. In 2019, around 100 girls in one county alone sat for their final exams while pregnant, while some gave birth during the exam period. Such accounts display remarkable determination by the girls to stay in school, but they're emblematic of the Kenyan government's failures toward children, by not addressing education and teen pregnancies.
Preventing teenage pregnancies is an important component of any education program. Age-appropriate, accurate sex education - based on science as opposed to myths - can arm children and adolescents with the information they need to make decisions about their own bodies and can empower children to speak up when they're in harm's way. When children understand what good relationships are, they learn to distinguish those from abusive or exploitative ones.
Kenya should ensure that pregnant girls, and adolescent mothers who are students return to school in 2021 when schools are expected to reopen. Girls need assurance from the government through a public directive that their right to education is guaranteed, no matter if they're pregnant. It means that schools should to be tasked with following-up with families to make sure the girls are protected and that families are encouraged to let them return to school. This is a chance to protect the many girls like Harriet, whose right to education must be protected zealously.