Author: Sheena Gimase

Kenya: Teens are having sex, so let them have it safely

It may be a hard fact for some to digest, but children younger than 15 in Kenya are having sex. This is according to the 2008-09 Kenyan Demographic Health Survey, which is the most recent such research carried out in Kenya.  It’s now 2014 and I don’t have empirical proof, but if the rate and age of teenage pregnancy in Kenya is anything to go by, this age of sexual debut has dropped considerably.

Alarm bells are raised about teenage pregnancies in all countries. The target of well-meaning campaigns is almost always the girl – but not always in a good way. Even in our everyday language, we say “Susan fell pregnant”  – because it’s similar to tripping over a sidewalk you didn’t see. It just happens, and Susan has little to no agency in the sex act that culminated in her becoming pregnant. But we hear that “Johnnie impregnated Jane”, putting Johnny in a position of power over the girl that he had sex with. The idea that young girls and boys engage in sexual activity for pleasure is a bitter pill to swallow for many African parents. In an attempt to keep young people chaste and pure, the other side of the story –  the boy-meets-girl story, the raging hormones and carnal desires story – is never told.

Puberty is a tumultuous time for young girls and boys. All the changes and attractions that the body and mind go through, and how to deal with them, is a trial-and-error minefield that young people find themselves in. The standard lesson many teenagers get from parents is: don’t have sex. Don’t get pregnant. Just don’t. But very few parents offer a conversation about the feelings that teenagers have at that time. Sex is presented as this scary, impossible to understand thing which should be reserved for marriage. But the will of the flesh often wins over the threats of parents, whether well-intentioned or not. Teenagers are having sex, and are going to continue to have sex because that’s what their bodies are telling them to do. But with little to no information on how to have safe and informed sex, the Russian roulette that young people play with their lives is dangerous.

Kenyans walk past condoms exhibited in the streets as workers distribute them on February 14 2014 to promote safe sex practices during the Valentine week and to mark International Condom Day. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyans walk past condoms exhibited in the streets as workers distribute them on February 14 2014 to promote safe sex practices during the Valentine week and to mark International Condom Day. (Pic: AFP)

But Kenya might have a solution for this. The proposed Reproductive Health Care Bill 2014 is, according to its sponsor Senator Judith Sijeny, meant to  “provide a framework for the protection and advancement of reproductive and health rights for women and children.” Those in favour of the Bill point to its potential to reduce teenage pregnancies and manage population control. Those against it are outraged by a clause that allows children from the age of 10 to access sexual reproductive health services and information without the consent of parents. This, as you can imagine, has parents, religious leaders and all sorts up in arms, saying that the government is bypassing their authority and allowing children to access contraceptives without their consent. What parents against this clause in the Bill are really resisting is their moral authority over their children who might not share the same philosophies about sex anymore. It’s being dubbed the Condoms-for-Kids Bill, which by inference is not a positive thing.

Sections 33 (2-3) and 34 (1a-c) of the Bill are the problematic parts and read as follows:

In the provision of reproductive health services to adolescents, parental consent is not mandatory… nothing prevents a health care provider from whom reproductive health services are sought by an adolescent, from referring the adolescent to a qualified person for provision of the necessary services.

The Board is consultation with government institutions and other bodies shall –
(a) facilitate the provision to of adolescent- friendly reproductive health and sexual health information and education;
(b) facilitate the provision to adolescents of confidential, comprehensive, non-judgmental and affordable reproductive health services;
(c) develop policies to protect adolescents from physical and sexual violence and discrimination including cultural practices that violate the reproductive health rights of the adolescents; and facilitate adolescents access to information, comprehensive sexuality education and confidential services.

If ever there was progress, this is it. And I say this not as a once horny teenager, but also as a parent with a child who will one day grow up and want to have sex. I won’t be there when these decisions are made but I would like to know that there are places where my child and his partner can go to access information and appropriate contraceptive options, free of judgment and harassment.

As parents, we like to think that we know our children better than they know themselves, but the truth is that we don’t. In fact, they probably know us better than we know them. Young people learn from each other easier and faster than they learn from their parents and other older role models. Kenyan parents are scared that making sexual reproductive healthcare information and facilities available to children without their consent will normalise pre-marital sex and encourage promiscuity. Condoms have been presented as a “burden” that school-going children do not need to be made to bear. The civil society organisations that start sex education clubs are accused of pushing donor-driven agendas with their endless access to condom money, and reducing these clubs to “fornication dens where condoms are handed out like sweets“. One opinion went as far as to suggest that this push for legislation to liberalise access to contraception for school-going children is a conspiracy between Members of Parliament and pharmaceutical companies looking to make a killing.

All conspiracy theories aside, the hard fact is that young people are having sex. Parents try, and fail miserably, when they play the morality card. Also, making girl children passive actors in the sex experience doesn’t help. Consensual sex is not something that ‘just happens’. And, much as no one wants to say so: in the same way that adults enjoy sex, so do young, sexually active girls and boys. The threat of teen pregnancy, school drop-outs, even the chance of contracting HIV, is not sufficient to scare young people off  having sex.

The decent and right thing to do is to create an environment where it is safe for young people to have safe, consensual sex. This would mitigate all the other issues that unprotected, uninformed sex brings up. A Bill like this empowers young people to know that they are in charge of their own sexuality and sex related choices. And this puts power in the hands of young people to shape their own futures.

Leaving the power to make these decisions in the hands of adults and parents opens young people up to abuse by the same parents and so-called adults. This Bill might empower students enough to refuse the advances of teachers and other adults in positions of power who are notorious for abusing their positions.

I’d imagine that when my own child is at a sexually active age, and finds it hard to speak to me about sex,  he has a safe place, free of judgment, where he can go and get all the information that he needs to make sure that he protects himself and his partner. I say pass the Bill unedited, and be brave enough to allow Kenyan children to have agency and power over their own sexuality and sexual choices.

Sheena Gimase is a Kenyan-born and Africa-raised critical feminist writer, blogger, researcher and thought provocateur. She’s lived and loved in Kenya, Tanzania, ZimbabweZambia, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Sheena strongly believes in the power of the written word to transform people, cultures and communities. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter.

The tragedy we found in Tuesday’s trash

It’s another pretty day in Ngong with clear skies and chirping birds. Jackie, the newest member of my circle of parenthood help, has just returned home from fetching my son Shaka, who is three months away from turning five. As I open the gate, she says to me: “Mama Shaka, kitu kimefanyika!” Something has happened.

Tuesday is rubbish collection day in our town, which is located in the Great Rift Valley near Nairobi. My family has lived in Ngong for over 20 years, and no municipal or county rubbish removal initiatives have existed during this time. So local entrepreneurs came up with their own trash collection initiative, a service that we use at the moment. On this warm, summer’s day we put our trash out as usual for the truck to collect.

Jackie lives about 50 metres from my childhood home, and just 10 meters from the pile of trash at the end of our street. At 30 she is no shrinking violet, but she doesn’t say much. Today, however, she is more excited than usual. She tells me that a little baby boy has been found on top of the pile of rubbish. I don’t understand. Where is the child’s family, I ask? How do you tell a child to sit on a pile of rubbish? Jackie says she doesn’t know. No one knows. All they know is that the little baby was wrapped in a curtain and left there. A curtain. Now it makes sense. The little baby was aborted and dumped along with Tuesday’s trash.

While rummaging through the rubbish, a street child had found the aborted baby. It was a baby, not a foetus, because this abortion was carried out very late into the pregnancy. Jackie tells me that the child had all its parts – all it had to do was grow. She reckons it was five months or older. She laughs as she relates this to me, but her laughter is not out of malice or insensitivity. Like many others, she just didn’t know what else to say or do.

I ask Jackie why no one called the police. She says someone has to go to the police station and write a statement before they would come and collect the body. I want to do this – but with the law enforcement system here, there’s a chance that I would be questioned, and even suspected of the backstreet abortion. I’m a single mother, with no important surnames that can offer me any kind of protection, and no husband to come vouch for my moral worthiness. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong police officer would get me into trouble.

I go to cover the body. It is placed at the side of the road where children pass by on their way home from school. They do not need to see that. Worse still, they do not need to hear the conversations vilifying the woman or girl that had aborted the baby, and shaming the faceless and nameless doer of this ‘evil’. Someone ventures that they know whose curtain the baby is wrapped in – but fortunately a witch-hunt is not called for. In places like Ngong with slow justice systems and even slower delivery of public services like police protection, the people’s thirst for due process comes fast and furiously.

Abortions in Kenya
Kenya has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Over 460 000 abortions were carried out in 2012 alone, according to research by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC). The majority of these were due to unwanted pregnancies. Another survey revealed that more than 2 500 Kenyan women die annually from complications arising from unsafe abortions carried out by unqualified medical practitioners. Kenya relaxed its abortion laws in the new Constitution that passed in 2010. Before this, abortion was illegal unless except to save a woman’s life – and  in this case, three doctors would have to approve a woman’s request for one. The new Constitution gives healthcare practitioners more latitude to determine when an abortion can be carried out. But as you can imagine, if the decision to grant a woman or girl an abortion lies in the hands of a healthcare professional, this leaves a lot to chance. Many Kenyans are still largely conservative when it comes to discourses on abortion, and chances that a nurse in a rural village will grant a 15-year-old with an unplanned pregnancy a requested abortion are very slim.  Commenting on the APHRC report, researcher Dr Elizabeth Kimani said that there is still a lot of stigma in Kenya around access to abortion as a reproductive health right for women. The government is dragging its feet in upgrading not only the facilities to carry out abortions, but also initiatives to sensitise health care professionals on why there’s a critical need for conversations about abortion in the country.

(Pic: Flickr / Damien du Toit)
(Pic: Flickr / Damien du Toit)

Ten years ago, when I was in high school, I was subjected to a mandatory pregnancy test after what the school authorities found what they suspected was an aborted foetus  in one of the dormitory bathrooms. The test was not a pee-on-a-stick type test. The school nurse carried out a vaginal exam, pressed down on my abdomen, and squeezed my nipples – to check for milk production, I guess. It was humiliating to say the least, and all the girls – nearly 1000 of us – had to undergo this. I could not imagine how or with what a fellow student could have carried out that suspected abortion. According to 2012 report by Kenya’s human rights commission, women take overdoses of anti-malaria medication or insert sharp objects like knitting needles and sticks into their bodies.

Back in Ngong, I dared to think about the woman that had just aborted this baby. She wasn’t a statistic in a report far away – she lived in my neighbourhood, she was close enough for me to have maybe met her or even spoken to her. Was she okay? Was she alone? Did she have help? Was she slowly bleeding to death in a little flat somewhere? Had she been raped? Was it an unplanned pregnancy? Maybe it was a case of incest, or maybe it wasn’t. To attempt a backstreet abortion this far into a pregnancy was an act of despair and desperation. The young woman or girl who did this really had no other choice. She didn’t. The people gathered by the side of the road did not ask these questions – all they saw was an aborted child, dumped on top of Tuesday’s trash.

I am unapologetically pro-choice. Restrictive laws and harsh social systems leave women and girls with such few options and virtually no bodily autonomy. And this goes beyond just the right to have safe abortions – it begins with a woman’s or a girl’s right to decide what happens to her body. A lot of underage sex is coerced and transactional. Many unplanned pregnancies are unwanted, even in marriage and in situations of perceived social stability. There’s no safety anywhere as far as women’s and girl’s bodies are concerned.

While society, religious organisations and indeed governments attempt to put their best moral foot forward, the reproductive and health rights of women and girls continue to suffer. And this suffering is not left to the women and girls alone – society suffers too. Women, men and children had to see an aborted child dumped on the side of the road, and the traumatic effects that witnessing such a sight can have on them goes ignored. As a passionate advocate for the right of women to choose, it was a humbling moment when I realised that these ‘issues’ are not happening  ‘out there’ – they are happening right outside my front door, right on top of Tuesday’s trash.

*This post was edited to correct the number of abortions carried out in Kenya in 2012.

Sheena Gimase is a Kenyan-born and Africa-raised critical feminist writer, blogger, researcher and thought provocateur. She’s lived and loved in Kenya, Tanzania, ZimbabweZambia, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Sheena strongly believes in the power of the written word to transform people, cultures and communities. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter.

Senior citizens? No, senior students

At 5pm every day, the streets of Nairobi are flooded with people spilling out of their offices and queuing at the nearest bus depot to catch their buses and matatus home. Joyce is one of them but she’s not rushing to get home in time for her favorite soapie or a glass of wine. She’s rushing to get to class. Joyce is a part time MBA student. Big deal, you think?  Well, it sort of is.

A mother of three adult children, 56-year-old Joyce is four years away from retirement. She is employed as a secretary at a government ministry in Kenya. When she started working thirty years ago, her certificate in Secretarial Studies from the Polytechnic of Kenya was enough to get her a job and enable her to house, clothe and feed her children. But, as it happens, times changed, and Joyce had to change as well. A certificate will not get you very far in Kenya today, and anything less than a university degree is not considered a worthwhile qualification. At her age, Joyce is not trying to get a promotion – the time for that has passed. She’s trying to learn as much as she can now, to prepare for her retirement. Joyce, who is also a part-time farmer, always loved business. At the age of 50 she decided to enrol for a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree. She studied, farmed and worked part time, and five years later she graduated with her BBA degree. Why stop now, she thought. In 2012, Joyce enrolled in an MBA program at Kenyatta University.

“I don’t want my life to stop when I retire, I want it to start,” Joyce says. She had to take a loan out to cover her tuition fees but she is confident that her time and effort will pay off once she is a full-time, successful farmer.

(Pic: Flickr/rnav1234)
(Pic: Flickr/rnav1234)

Her choice to continue studying may be unusual but she’s not alone. Thousands of older Kenyans are enrolled in part-time undergraduate and post-graduate programs, all of them wanting to make their dreams of a tertiary education finally come true. Take Juliet for example. By day, Juliet is a nursery school teacher, rhyming out ABCs to restless four-year-olds, but by night and weekend, Juliet is a Psychology of Childhood Development student at a college in Nairobi. There is also Claire, a corner kiosk owner. She runs her business fulltime but takes accounting courses over the weekend.

All the women I have met and spoken with are not just students. They are mothers, grandmothers, wives and caretakers and their student status does not exempt them from their other traditional domestic duties. Culture is still largely unforgiving to the Kenyan woman that doesn’t cook, clean and keep an organised household. By any standards, these women have at least three jobs, but for them, their student status is one they wear with pride because it is a choice they made for themselves.

From as early as I can remember, I was taught that a good education was what would make all my dreams come true. My parents often told me to get better grades or suffer a beating. At some point during my pimple-popping teens and great depression over my nonexistent hips, my mother told me quite bluntly that my looks would get me nowhere in this life, but my brain would get me everywhere. The power of the book is preached fervently to all children in Kenya, and academic competition is as bloodthirsty as a boxing match. I always just knew that after high school I was going to a university and that I was going to get a degree. This was never something I questioned, as far as I knew it was a fact.

This was not the case for our mothers and fathers. In their time, tertiary education was for the extremely bright and well-to-do. Only so many people could get scholarships, and at that time, only a select few had degrees. Now that tertiary education is no longer a luxury but a necessity, our parents’ generation is taking every opportunity available to obtain those degrees that were been denied to them so many years ago.

I’m fortunate to be doing what I always wanted to do: write. I doubt that Joyce wanted to be a secretary, or Juliet a nursery school teacher. But luckily for them, they have a second chance to do what they have always dreamed of doing. Despite the challenges – time, money, late nights – sitting in that lecture hall and feeling that your life’s purpose is finally coming to fruition is the price Joyce, Juliet and Claire are willing to pay.

Sheena Gimase is a Kenyan-born and Africa-raised critical feminist writer, blogger, researcher and thought provocateur. She’s lived and loved in Kenya, Tanzania, ZimbabweZambia, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Sheena strongly believes in the power of the written word to transform people, cultures and communities. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter.

Viva my village madman

I grew up in the sometimes green, sometimes beige rolling hills of Ngong, near Nairobi. When I was a kid, Ngong was so remote and so far away from everything that very few people knew where it was or what happened there. Today, people lovingly refer to Ngong as ‘the diaspora’ because on a good day it can take you two hours to get from Nairobi’s city centre to the heart of the town using public transport. Yet it’s a journey many of my friends blatantly refuse to make even if I am offering them free beer and internet bundles. They will not come here unless they have to. But I digress.

Having lived away from home for over a decade, coming back was, of course, interesting. Everything had changed. Ten years ago Ngong looked like the set of a 1950s western. The whole town consisted of just a bank, a post office, a police station, a supermarket, a slew of watering holes, a barber shop and a salon. Fast forward to 2013. Ngong has grown and expanded and morphed into a bustling town with more than one bank and a taxi rank. I was overwhelmed with all the changes. For years I had lived in small, simple, modern and organised Windhoek, which is nothing like what Ngong is now.

The streets of Ngong (Pic: Sheena Gimase)
The streets of Ngong. (Pic: Sheena Gimase)
The streets of Ngong. (Pic: Sheena Gimase)
The streets of Ngong. (Pic: Sheena Gimase)

It upset and overwhelmed me how everything had changed seemingly overnight, and that I wasn’t there to witness it. I needed familiarity, I needed to remember what Ngong was like before it was transformed. A month into my visit, while trying not to look like a tourist in my home town,  I saw him. And just like that, there was peace once more in my familiar-turned-strange town. He is the village madman. When I call him that, I don’t mean it disrespectfully. Every village has one, they tend to be the mascots of the place. I never knew our village madman’s name while growing up in Ngong, but I could never forget his face.

Now that I think about it, the village madman is who I have to thank for helping me find the courage to live my life on my terms. You see, he is the first adult cross-dresser I ever encountered. It was a Saturday morning and I was probably all of nine years old. As was routine, our house-help Habiba and I trudged to the market bright and early to get the fresh pickings of the day. As Habiba haggled over the price of a cabbage, I saw a man, dirty, disheveled and agitated, walk across the market speaking to his invisible friends. He looked like a man, but he wore a dress and sandals. I think I even saw a hint of a bra strap showing through his floral frock.

“Well, what do you know, do men wear dresses too?” I asked Habiba.

She said simply that he’s mad, and because he’s mad he gets to dress whichever way he wants to. Being a bit of a tomboy myself and not liking dresses and frilly things at that age when all my mother wanted to do was put beads in my hair and wrap me up in something lacy, I thought to myself: “I wonder how mad I have to be to get away with wearing what I want.”

The village madman offered me a different perspective on life and people. Despite the vicious verbal attacks he made at his imaginary companions, no one at the market seemed scared of him. I saw one vendor toss him a tomato and another a banana. He was welcome there, and accepted, and allowed to express himself as much as his energies could allow. At nine years old this was fascinating to watch. The community that let him roam around freely also fed him and kept him clothed. When it was cold he had a warm coat and warm socks. When it was raining, market vendors would let him sleep under their stalls at the close of business. I cannot ever remember encountering him drunk and disorderly anywhere, or sitting idly. He always had somewhere to be and something to do.

In an uncanny way he taught me that we all have a place of acceptance in this world. A safe space. For the village madman, that safe space was the market and Ngong itself. When I realised that my strong feminist views were not commonplace in Kenya or in many of the other African countries I’ve had the opportunity to live in, I sought out such a safe space; a space where I could be a feminist and find acceptance. I found that space in my work at Sister Namibia, and just like Ngong did for the village madman, my job kept me fed, clothed and safe.

When I saw the village madman again that day, ten and some years later, I was so excited. I wanted to wave, but I settled for a smile. He looked blankly at me and went on his merry way, still wearing a dress but much older, still busy and still talking to his invisible companions. Since seeing him, Ngong feels like home again. So here’s to my village madman, whose name I will try and learn, for giving me home back and teaching me that we all can find a place to belong, no matter how odd, different or just plain weird we are.

Sheena Gimase is a Kenyan-born and Africa-raised critical feminist writer, blogger, researcher and thought provocateur. She’s lived and loved in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Sheena strongly believes in the power of the written word to transform people, cultures and communities. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter.