“I got married at 16. I dropped out of school because my father refused to pay my school fees. I loved school and it was painful watching my father refuse to pay for me yet he had money. I left home because I was depressed and so I decided to get married.” Zuhura, an 18-year-old mother of one living in the Makina area around Kibera, says.

Pregnancy, early marriages, poverty and preferences for boys are some of the reasons why so many girls drop out of school. This denies them the opportunity to further their Education, attain their life and career goals and contribute to Social- Economic development. In addition, teenage pregnancies expose girls and their children to major health risks.

According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally. This feature shares the highs and lows of young mothers in Kibera, Nairobi County, and the strategies put in place to empower them academically, professionally and economically.

Hellen Nabwire, who has been born and bred in Kibera, describes the circumstances that led her to early motherhood.

“My parents divorced leaving me to end up with my father. I schooled at Joseph Kang’ethe primary school and after that he refused to pay for my high school education, saying he has to school my brother first. I kept wondering what I would be doing the entire time my brother was schooling. Seeing other children go to school made me feel lonely and having no one to advise me, I decided to get married. My husband too refused to take me to school and culturally, for me to be regarded as a wife, I have to bear children for him.”

Rose, 23, explains how her brother’s death left her on the brink of hopelessness. “I was living with my brother in Nairobi when he died. I did not have a place to stay after the demise but I had a boyfriend, who was also my brother’s friend. I decided to go stay with him instead of suffering in the streets.”

According to a National Council for Population and Development report, 13,000 young girls drop out of school each year to have children. This exceeds their abilities to acquire skills, attain high levels of education and access social-economic opportunities. The bitter reality is that many of these teen mothers are subjected to stigma, rejection or violence from partners, parents and peers that often lead to further poverty and economic hardship.

Education for girls has benefits. Educated women have a greater chance of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives and raising the standards of living for their children. Uwezo Foundation understands this and this is why through its Bright Future Programme, it supports young mothers to re-enrol in secondary school and tertiary colleges as well as offer them interest-free business loans and skills development opportunities.

“We plan that we have women who can fend for themselves by the time they are leaving Uwezo. It makes us confident that they are doing something with their lives. They can support their families, live more responsibly, know how to interact with the community and can look for more opportunities even outside Kibera.” Sylvia, Development Manager says.

At 10:00 AM in Karanja, Kibera Area, 20-30 young mothers accompanied by their children gather at the facility every Saturday to participate in the different activities. Sylvia, Development Manager of the project explains;

“The women meet every week for about 2 hours. We engage in a lot of activities like training sessions, and they get to propose the kinds of topics they would like to learn about. We get experienced moderators who come and coordinate the sessions. Topics could be on financial literacy, Entrepreneurship, Business skills, Reproductive Health, Child care, Grooming, Life skills and any other topic, making us create a calendar for all these events.”

Zuhura, currently in form four, goes to school for 3 hours a day. She enrolled on the adult education system so that she can focus on her studies in a setting that is both free from Stigma and one that makes her able to fend for her 3 months- old daughter. She knows too well that carving out time for education in the busy schedule of a new mother and a wife will take sacrifice.

As much as Hellen Nabwire desires to go back to school, her double responsibility makes it impossible, as she explains.

“I cannot go back to school. I have a daughter in high school who requires school fees, my 4-year old has to start school soon while the one in class 7 will be sitting for her final exam soon. I have another baby who is yet to start school. I’m required to pay rent and my business collapsed. Where will I get all that money yet I’m a single mother?”

Does Uwezo Foundation have a plan for young mothers who can neither rejoin school nor initiate businesses?

“We are still in the process of seeing whether we can be placing some of them into jobs that will give them a stable income that they can be able to budget for at the end of each month since most of them rely on meagre jobs to sustain themselves.” Says Sylvia.

The backdrop of school closures, Economic challenges occasioned by the pandemic and too much idle time on their hands made adolescent girls face teenage pregnancies and early marriages. The Ministry of Health Information System Health Records indicates that over 300,000 girls got pregnant in the first year of the pandemic. As schools reopened, a proportion of girls did not re-enrol and sit for National examinations due to school fees and unintended pregnancies.

Kenya has several laws that should protect young mothers Right to Education like The Education Act and the Return to School policy which encourages the establishment of centres where young mothers could continue with their formal education while breastfeeding their children. It also calls for the counselling of the girls, parents, teachers and other students in the school. If these laws are implemented, more girls won’t have to trade their education for raising their children.

Zuhura became a mother during the Pandemic and her advice to other young mothers is not to despair when they slip but rather take on the opportunities that life will present them.

                                                                                       By Lourdes Walusala.


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