Last week, Kenya’s Parliament started debating the Care and Protection of Child and Parents Bill, which is being touted as a legal framework to help pregnant girls stay in school and pursue careers once they graduate. With around 18 percent of Kenyan girls between the ages of 15 and 19 having given birth to at least one child, the proposed bill says that a student should not be denied her right to education simply because she is expectant. The bill further advocates that the girl receive adequate support – from her school, her family and the government – even after the baby is born.
Critics say some of the bill’s provisions go too far, such as the proposed ban on teachers disclosing pregnancies to parents and guardians, and the three-year jail term or 3 million Kenyan shillings ($29,000) fine for school heads who defy the proposed law. But advocates say the bill would help protect pregnant women from discrimination and stigmatization, including the unwritten rule in many schools that girls should be made to leave once it’s discovered they are pregnant.
According to the Population Council, which has undertaken research on unintended teen pregnancy in Homa Bay County in western Kenya, girls cite pregnancy as the main reason for dropping out of school. Since 2014, the organization has worked with stakeholders in the county to educate them on policies meant to keep pregnant and parenting girls in school.
Women & Girls spoke with Chi-Chi Undie, senior associate with the Population Council’s reproductive health program in Kenya, about how the proposed bill could improve the lives of pregnant and parenting students.
Women & Girls: What were some of the key findings of your research in Homa Bay?
Chi-Chi Undie: In Homa Bay County [we found that] 33 percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls experience childbirth. This is actually the second-highest childbearing rate in the country among 15- to 19-year-olds. We interviewed over 700 out-of-school teenage girls and asked what their main reason was for dropping out of school. Pregnancy turned out to be the main reason, cited by 70 percent of these girls, and practically all those citing this reason also indicated that their pregnancy was unintended.
A third of the girls we interviewed were married. We learned that almost all of them – 92 percent – got married simply because they had unintentionally gotten pregnant.
Women & Girls: At the time that these girls fell pregnant, what policies were in place to help them?
Undie: There were actually a number of powerful policies in place at the time. Kenya’s national school health policy, for instance, is geared toward ensuring continued education for pregnant girls, who are allowed to remain in school for as long as they would like. In addition, the school re-entry policy for girls was passed in 1994 to ensure that parenting girls are allowed back in school after childbirth.
Between these two policies, one would assume that pregnancy would not spell the end for a girl’s education. But we found that a large proportion of key stakeholders – pregnant and parenting girls, their parents, school personnel and students – were not aware of these policies. A third of the school principals we interviewed were not aware of the national school health policy, for instance.
Women & Girls: Did those policies help address the issue of pregnant learners?
Undie: While these policies represented a really important step in addressing the issue, there were some gaps brought about by the fact that the policies were developed in isolation of one another.
For instance, one document indicates that pregnant girls should be sent home from school, and another states that such learners can remain in school for as long as they would like. The two documents also suggest different timings for a parenting girl’s readmission into school after she leaves to have the baby.
These inconsistencies leave policy implementers at a loss for how to adequately support pregnant and parenting learners. Policy implementers resort to making things up as they go along – often to the detriment of girls’ continued education.
Women & Girls: Do you think the Care and Protection of Child and Parents Bill will adequately address these issues?
Undie: We think that the bill certainly comes from the right place. Nonetheless, if there is one thing we have learned from working in Homa Bay County, it is that policies and laws do not implement themselves. A well-crafted law has to be implemented by prepared people. People need to be properly engaged and brought on board. They need to be given a chance to become familiar with the content of a new policy, bill or law. They need a chance to air their concerns and they need to feel like they have been heard.
Women & Girls: Why do you think there has been opposition to this bill?
Undie: We think there might be several reasons. For example, the bill apparently bars parents or guardians from knowing the results of their daughters’ pregnancy tests, if ever carried out in school. Our experience in Homa Bay, however, demonstrates that bringing parents and their daughters into a shared conversation around a controversial issue is very effective. It prevents parents from feeling excluded and can help ensure that girls get the moral support they need from home.
Also, the bill would hold severe repercussions for school principals who do not adhere to the proposed law, including imprisonment. Again, we have found that dialogue does a lot to foster school principals’ buy-in – even for historically difficult issues such as school re-entry for parenting girls.
Furthermore, school principals are constantly engaged in a tough balancing act: They have to balance policies and laws against the expectations and perceptions of the communities they serve. The two are often in conflict because communities are often not sensitized properly. So, it is plausible that the bill would place many school principals at risk of imprisonment.
Women & Girls: How else do you think the bill can be improved?
Undie: Our findings showed that poverty is still a major constraint for many girls. In other words, although we were able to meet our aim of ensuring that more girls returned to school, keeping them in school in the long term is another predicament. A girl might return to school for one term but drop out again the following term for financial reasons. So, the bill would do well to include measures to address this reality alongside the other issues already mentioned.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
This story has been updated to correct the date when Kenya’s Parliament began debating the bill.