BARCELONA — The number of teenage pregnancies has increased dramatically in regions of northern Kenya as a result of recent school closures and lockdowns, according to new data from the International Rescue Committee.
In Turkana County, 558 adolescent pregnancies were reported between March and June — almost a threefold increase from the same period last year, the organization said.
The data, sent to Devex but not yet publicly available, is some of the first hard evidence that measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in a rise in early and unintended pregnancies, which could reflect a wider trend. Back in April, the United Nations Population Fund warned there could be a possible rise in the number of unintended pregnancies, including among adolescent girls, as a result of school closures and the suspension of essential services.
Experts worry the pandemic could roll back decades of progress on gender equality and girls' education.
“Crisis situations are known to increase adolescent girls’ risk of sexual abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence, and unwanted pregnancies,” said Nathaly Spilotros, adolescent sexual and reproductive health adviser with IRC.
“Without access to critical sexual and reproductive health information, comprehensive sexuality education, as well as sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptives, we will see increases in unintended adolescent pregnancies,” she added. “This will inevitably contribute to maternal deaths and disability across humanitarian settings.” It also means girls are less likely to return to schools when they reopen.
Based on IRC’s data, girls living in refugee camps have been particularly affected. At the Kakuma refugee camp, 62 teenage pregnancies were reported in June 2020 among IRC clients, compared with eight cases in the same month last year. Meanwhile, in the Dadaab refugee camp — which is in Kenya but outside of the Turkana region — the rate of teenage pregnancies in the April-June period increased by 28% compared with the previous year.
However, there are even more cases that go unreported, said Esther Muhia, women’s protection coordinator for Kenya with IRC.
This data has been collected from the parents and girls who seek support from safe spaces run by the organization, she said, but there will be many girls who do not feel comfortable opening up about their situation. In Lodwar, a town in Turkana County where the organization runs a support center for the wider rural community, issues around transport may also prevent girls from reaching those services, Muhia added.
While more global data is needed, many health organizations are concerned about an inevitable rise in unintended and early pregnancies.
Dr. Manisha Kumar, head of the safe abortion care task force with Médecins Sans Frontières, said that while hard numbers are still lacking in many places, anecdotal evidence suggests there has indeed been an increase in teenage pregnancies. “I have been hearing from our staff that we are seeing more teenagers, more young girls seeking safe abortion care than normal,” Kumar said during an online press briefing.
With girls out of school, confined to their homes, and having limited access to contraceptive services, “rates of unwanted pregnancies have gone up, and it is disproportionately affecting teens,” Kumar said.
School closures have been the “key contributing factor,” according to IRC’s Muhia. Girls can find themselves in vulnerable situations when stuck at home with people who may take advantage of them or when burdened with additional tasks, such as collecting firewood or water, she said.
Many young people have also adopted “negative coping mechanisms” as they find themselves out of school for months and with little guidance on how they should spend their time, Muhia added.
“I have been hearing from our staff that we are seeing more teenagers, more young girls seeking safe abortion care than normal.”— Dr. Manisha Kumar, head, MSF task force for safe abortion care
IRC has continued to provide sexual and reproductive health services and psychosocial support to girls in Kenya during the lockdown and facilitated mass media campaigns to raise awareness among communities around pregnancy prevention.
However, there have been failings at a government level in the response to teenage pregnancy, Muhia suggested. Despite encouraging young people to continue learning online, many families in northern Kenya live below the poverty line and do not have access to the tools to participate, she said.
The government has also “not provided coping mechanisms, and [it leaves] these young people to find their own way of coping with school closure,” Muhia said. “[It’s] a gap there which needs to be addressed.”
Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone government has been “keen to prevent a repeat of the spike in teenage pregnancies seen during the Ebola crisis,” said Diana Amanyire, global marketing adviser and youth lead with Marie Stopes International, in an email to Devex. MSI has been working with the government to publicize sexual health advice and information on youth services via school radio programs.
Elsewhere, MSI has been adapting its services to continue reaching adolescents amid the pandemic, including with the introduction of contraception home delivery in Uganda and Nigeria.
Additional support for girls is also being provided via social media messaging, such as on Facebook and WhatsApp. During lockdowns, MSI saw a 50% spike in the number of messages received through these platforms globally, indicating the ongoing need for advice and support, Amanyire noted.
“We know from experience that girls are particularly vulnerable during crises … [and] young people too often face discrimination and stigma,” she said. “In this time of crisis it’s vital that their needs are kept front and centre.”
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