How one woman is helping teen mothers overcome stigma and go back to school
By Caroline Kim
Atieno*, a 16 year old Form Two student from Seme Sub-County, in Kisumu wishes she could unwind the clock and go back to the day she met a man who promised her heaven, but delivered a baby bump instead.
The girl is five months pregnant and the man who is responsible is a boda boda rider. The day he learnt she was pregnant he fled, changed his mobile phone number and moved to a different location. Atieno is an orphan, her grandmother is now left with the responsibility of raising Atieno and her two siblings.
Her grandmother’s primary source of income is selling handmade mats, and most days, the proceeds are not enough to feed them.
“I slept with him because he promised to take care of me. He sometimes gave me Sh1,000 to spend over a period of two weeks. I wanted to help my grandmother in her business by purchasing raw materials for the mats,” says Atieno. Now, she has to deal with the reality of an extra mouth to feed.
Atieno is now just a statistic of the high number of teen girls who are driven by poverty to give in to sexual advances from older men.
There are some people who have dedicated their lives to change the narrative of such girls. Mercy Selly is one of them. She is a champion for eradicating teen pregnancy and a woman who is given to empowering teen mums. She has managed to convince Atieno to stay in school and endeavour to complete her education after delivering her baby.
“I had contemplated dropping out of school, it is not easy to interact with your peers once you are in the family way. They call you names such as mama nani, (someone’s mother) which feels so demeaning,” says Atieno. But after attending mentorship sessions where Mercy was speaking, she re-evaluated her decision. “A friend of mine told me of a training programme run by Plan International and I thought I would attend just to hear what was said, there I got to also meet other girls who had become teen mums and were now in school. I knew then that I wasn’t alone. I gained a new perspective on the importance of going back to school,” says Atieno.
Having walked in the same shoes, Mercy understands the struggle of becoming a mother a decade too soon. She dropped out in form three and never got the chance to go back and complete her secondary school education. Selly volunteers to speak in schools and works with NGO’s in the region who share a similar vision. “Apart from the economic struggle that the girls have to grapple with there is also the fear of ridicule among peers – which is often times even worse than the money situation. But with proper training and support, we manage to convince most of them to either go back to school or take up vocational programmes,” says Mercy.
She has seen over 20 girls sponsored by Plan International to either go back to school after delivery or join vocational programmes. However, the number of girls needing assistance is much higher. “There are smaller projects such as table banking, chicken rearing amongst others, that assist in empowering the girls to have a small source of income or financial liberality. I cannot get all the girls to get scholarships but I think we’ve made some strides in helping eradicate the problem.”
Selly, a farmer adds that issuing of bicycles to girls from very poor backgrounds, who have to walk long distances in order to get to school, is another intervention that is working. “I seek assistance and work with NGO’s such as Investing in Children and their Societies (ICS), Care Kenya and Plan International. I am not under anyone’s payroll, but through their platforms and resources I have seen the lives of many changed,” she says.