The wellbeing of thousands of girls in Kenya could be at risk with reports of huge numbers of unintended teen pregnancies since the start of COVID-19 lockdown.
Media reports citing data from a government-managed health information system have stated that up to 4,000 adolescent girls may have visited health facilities for antenatal services in the county of Machakos alone between January and May. The figure for the whole country, it is feared, may run into several thousands.
Since containment measures in Kenya were put in place, including closing schools and restricting movement, accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information and services has become very challenging for girls and women. This is on top of cultural expectations surrounding abstinence, which already impacted young people's confidence in seeking sexual and reproductive health services.
Kate Maina-Vorley, Plan International Kenya's Country Director, said: "It is alarming that so many teenage girls have fallen pregnant during lockdown, which can have lifelong consequences for them. We are extremely concerned about their wellbeing and their access to health care and other support services."
"Our research shows that the majority of teenage pregnancies are unintended. Even before the crisis, girls and young women in Kenya faced considerable challenges in accessing essential health information and services. Now, amid a pandemic that is straining even the strongest healthcare systems, there is a real risk that sexual and reproductive health and rights will be deprioritised, with devastating consequences for girls and women."
According to the WHO, complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth are already the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 globally. Pregnant girls and young mothers face even greater risks in crises such as the ongoing pandemic.
ACCESS TO SERVICES REDUCED
Evidence from past epidemics indicates that resources are often diverted from routine health services, which further reduces access to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as maternal, new-born and child health services.
"What we are looking at is an extremely serious and widespread health and social emergency for girls which will have long-term implications for their futures," said Ms Maina-Vorley.
According to a research conducted by Plan International last year across nine counties in Kenya, unintended or unwanted teenage pregnancy was a huge issue for girls, significantly impacting their lives. The research found:
- 98% of pregnant girls were not in school, and 59% of the pregnancies among girls aged 15-19 years were unintended.
- 45% of severe abortion complications were also reported among adolescent girls.
- Sexual violence is believed to affect about one-third of girls and one-sixth of boys under 18, but most do not discuss their experiences or receive assistance.
- More than half (54%) of sexually active adolescent girls in Kenya did not intend to get pregnant and have an unmet need for modern contraception.
"As the government continues to ensure the spread of COVID-19 is minimised, it is important that we mitigate the gendered fall-out for the pandemic that is affecting children and in particular adolescent girls in Kenya," said Ms Maina-Vorley.
"It is vital that the government ensures that restrictions on movement don't limit access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, protection and psychological support services. Government and healthcare partners should consider age-responsive positive sexuality education in online and distant learning packages and continue to sensitise and encourage communities to embrace sexual and reproductive health-seeking behaviours. We must ensure that girls and women can leave home and access services in person or via tele-health."
SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES MUST BE IN COVID-19 RESPONSE PLANS
Plan International is calling for governments to prioritise and fully fund SRHR as part of their COVID-19 response plans, recognising the essential and life-saving nature of these services. Plan International also calls on governments and the private sector to embrace new ways of providing sexual and reproductive health information and services, including through social media, tele-health, radio and distance learning and to mitigate the impact of any disruption in supply chains for contraceptives and essential HIV medicines.
The organisation is raising €100 million to protect some of the world's most vulnerable children and their communities from the impacts of COVID-19. Plan International's response, covering more than 50 countries, is focused on assisting children - particularly girls, who are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Donate to Plan International's COVID-19 appeal and find out more about our response here.