Final-year high school student Alice Njeri, who lives in a small estate, Fedha, in Nairobi County, fell pregnant earlier this year, soon after the implementation of the COVID-19 lockdown which closed all schools and universities. As a result, she is only likely to follow her plan to enrol in tertiary studies next year.
“There was a lot of free time as a result of the school closures and my boyfriend lived in the same area … Both our parents were always away at work and we mostly found ourselves alone at home. One thing led to another, and now I am four months’ pregnant,” said Njeri.
“I was in my final year in high school waiting for my end-of-year exams but now, even when schools reopen, I will have no choice but to stay at home,” she told University World News. Njeri said she wanted to study tourism at college, but now it seems that her dreams of further education will have to wait a while.
Njeri’s plight is not unique.
In June, several news outlets carried stories about a dramatic spike in teenage pregnancies during the school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Machakos County Children’s Officer Salome Muthama was quoted by several Kenyan media outlets. She said data from the Kenya Health Information System suggested that 3,964 girls aged 19 years and below had become pregnant within the preceding five months, a period which partly coincided with the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
“Most of these cases you will find involve children who were taken from urban centres in the wake of COVID-19 and left in the hands of their grandmothers in the countryside as the parents returned to the towns,” Muthama is quoted as saying. She said the closure of schools had left young girls vulnerable to peer pressure and sexual predators.
“Some of these girls’ futures may have just been ruined as you can find some of them fail to go back to school and instead look for odd jobs to do,” said Muthama.
The upsurge in teen pregnancies because of school shutdowns and movement restrictions has been disputed by the African Institute for Development Policy on the basis of its own investigation which suggests that compared to 2019, national figures are in fact not any higher and in some counties, actually lower.
“The gravity of high teenage pregnancy is not new in Kenya. Data from the Demographic and Health Surveys show that almost two out of 10 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are reported to be pregnant or have had a child already. This trend has been fairly consistent for more than two decades with little change in prevalence between 1993 and 2014,” said an AFIDEP report by Elizabeth Kahurani.
Regardless of whether there is a real increase or not, the disruption on the lives of young girls and women with the potential to study at tertiary level is significant.
Twenty-three-year-old Molly Achieng had a child during her first year at a local university. “I was 18 years when I got pregnant and had just secured a chance to join the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology,” said Achieng.
Achieng said she felt scared and embarrassed at having to start her first year as a student as a pregnant, soon-to-be mother. When her child was due, Achieng had to postpone her studies and took a year off to look after the child.
“Even when I reported back to school after a year, it was still tough having to balance my school work and taking care of my child. I had no source of income and had to rely on my parents for assistance,” Achieng explained. “And while other students my age were discovering their potential in university, I had to stay back home during my free time to take care of the baby,” she said.
The impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on pregnancy rates around the world among all women, but particularly those in low-income countries, was to some extent anticipated.
Towards the end of April 2020, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) produced an “interim technical note” which warned against the impact of COVID-19 on family planning. The UNFPA document, produced with help from Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University in the United States and Victoria University in Australia, warned that extended COVID-19 related lockdowns and disruptions to supply chains were likely to limit the availability of contraceptives and curtail the ability of women to access family planning facilities in many low-income countries.
“If the lockdown continues for six months and there are major service disruptions due to COVID-19, an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur … The number of unintended pregnancies will increase as the lockdown continues and services disruptions are extended,” it said.