Margaret Atieno was just 15 when a university student noticed her and began to ask her out on dates. He was an acquaintance from Raila, their neighborhood in Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum. At first, Atieno found him charming.
Once they were in a relationship, she made clear to him she wasn’t ready to have unprotected sex. One of six children, she had learned about condoms in school and like the other girls she grew up with, the high-scoring student wanted to avoid having children before she finished her education. But when her boyfriend suggested they sleep together and she asked him to use protection, he refused.
“He told me it meant I didn’t trust him,” she said. “Instead, he said if I just squatted and took aspirin after sex, it was the same as using condoms.”
Within a few months, she was pregnant.
Atieno, now 20 and the single mother of a five-year-old son, was one of around 80 people who gathered in Kibera on December 10 to protest against sexual violence and demand improved sex education in the densely populated town. Home to some 250,000 people, Kibera is believed to be the largest urban slum in Africa. And despite a massive array of intervention projects, many of them by international NGOs, a lack of sex education and limited access to family planning have perpetuated cycles of poverty and unplanned pregnancies for the people living there.
For Atieno, it is personal. Her older sister, now 22, already has five children, and her husband refuses to consider any kind of contraception. “He says God wants her to multiply,” Atieno said. And many of her peers have experienced sexual violence or, like her, been pressed into having unprotected sex by older men. She said some have even resorted to prostituting themselves for “nice food, dresses or shoes.” If the girls become pregnant, the men they have slept with often refuse to provide for their children, leaving the young mothers to carry the burden.
According to a 2015 report by the Population Council, one-third of girls aged 11 to 14 in Kibera experience some kind of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. The same report found that 71 percent of girls in that age group feared they would be raped; and 90 percent felt unsafe walking alone at night.
Atieno, an aspiring actress, now works with Wasanii Sanaa, a small community-based organization that uses song, dance and short comedy sketches to draw attention to human rights, corruption and violence against women, among other issues. During the rally, she and six of her colleagues performed at various intersections in Kibera, interrupting the traffic to call attention to what they say is the rampant mistreatment of women in their hometown.
Quintes Adhiambo, 18, who belongs to the same performance group, also had an unplanned pregnancy. Her story echoes Atieno’s. Last year, she started dating a 23-year-old who also refused to use condoms. Now she has a seven-month-old daughter. “He told me that using condoms meant I didn’t love him,” she said. And although both Atieno and Adhiambo said they learned about sex education at school, their parents never talked to them about it at home – even as they saw sisters and neighbors go through unplanned pregnancies when they were young. For their community, they said, early pregnancy has become the norm. Celine Awino, another actress in the group, is the only one who doesn’t yet have a child. And in some circles, she’s mocked for it. “Men often say I must be barren,” she said.
Also at the rally were Kibera Performing Arts, a collection of brass players and percussionists who led the way through the slum’s crowded streets, drawing attention to those marching behind them, who were holding signs that read “Give children their rights” and “Say no to violence against girls and women.”
Joshua Omanya, 33, was at the front of the march. Born and raised in Kibera, he was arrested aged 22 for possession of a gun connected with a number of crimes committed by its previous owner. Initially sentenced to death, he eventually won an appeal that overturned his earlier conviction, though he still spent seven years in jail. A self-described “reformed gangster,” he now works for The Cup, a non-profit organization based in Kibera that provides menstrual cups to school-aged girls as an alternative to more expensive sanitary pads or tampons.
The organization also provides safe-sex training for high-school students – and it’s Omanya who runs the workshops for boys. Drawing on his own experience in prison, he encourages the young men, who are usually between 13 and 16, to avoid falling into circles that use drugs and alcohol. But he also teaches them how to use condoms – and talks to them about rape. “I tell them, ‘Don’t force a girl to have sex with you because, number one, she won’t enjoy it, and number two, if you are caught raping a girl, you could get a life sentence,’” he said.
The students often take his cellphone number and follow up later with personal questions. He said he has given advice to some 3,000 of them this year alone.
That kind of outreach is critical to protecting the women of Kibera from unplanned pregnancies. Because of the close quarters in which so many Kibera residents live, children start hearing about sex from an early age, but not always in the classroom. Atieno’s son is only five, but she is already talking to him about sex, hoping to get ahead of what he might hear from his friends when he is older. For now, she is only telling him that having sex is a bad idea. “I told him he should never sleep with anyone,” she said, with a laugh. “But as he gets older, I’ll tell him more and more until he understands.”