Pregnant girls and young mothers in Kenya have right to education

Perspective by Agnes Odhiambo

“I want to [talk] about female candidates who sat for the…examination [while] in hospitals. As I celebrate, I also want to castigate our parents in the most severe terms possible,” these were the words of Kenya’s cabinet secretary for education, Professor George Magoha, when he presented the results of the 2020 secondary school leaving exam this week. He was talking about students who sat for their exams while pregnant.

But the secretary’s comment diminished what was otherwise a positive statement acknowledging the right to education for all children. His words, including a later statement implying that girls from his generation were “better behaved,” threaten to cast pregnant girls as moral failures. This perception is common in Kenya, often shared publicly by senior government officials and members of parliament, and contributes to shaming, stigmatization, and isolation of adolescent girls who have early pregnancies.

Such attitudes undermine girls’ right to education.

Pregnancy and childbearing, especially for girls, are life-altering events. Overcoming the challenges linked to being pregnant or a parent while studying – often in non-protective or supportive environments – present serious challenges for pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ access to education. 

Kenya has a re-entry policy that allows pregnant girls to stay in school for as long as they want but prevents them from resuming studies until six months after delivery. Human Rights Watch research shows there is weak implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of this policy. Instead, pregnant girls face multiple barriers to staying in school, such as accommodation for breastfeeding, childcare, stigma in schools and communities, and lack of finances.

Cabinet Secretary Magoha has raised concerns about pregnancy amongst students and asked education officials to investigate the causes. However, he missed an important opportunity to affirm government policy protecting pregnant girls’ right to education.

Instead of shaming pregnant girls and their parents, Prof. Magoha should champion the important role the education sector can play in preventing unplanned adolescent pregnancies as well as supporting pregnant and adolescent mothers in maintaining social networks and pursuing their educational and economic dreams.

The international and national legal obligation to provide pregnant and parenting students with education, without discrimination, is clear. As the cabinet secretary rightly noted in his speech, “… there is no insignificant child…. We must not leave any learner behind.”

Agnes Odhiambo is a researcher with the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, where she investigates violations of women’s rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

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