Keeping Kenyan girls in school and ensuring they have access to HIV and sex education has a dramatic effect on lowering future levels of HIV, according to experts.
"Young people do not have the information they need, and the dropout rate, particularly for girls, is still too high," said Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Adolescence (CSA), which conducts research into teen behaviour and implements programmes for them.
"Dropping out of school ensures a life of poverty for these girls, and many of them also wind up HIV-positive because the male-female power dynamics become even more slanted against them."
Although the government introduced free primary school education in 2003, an estimated one million children of school-going age are not attending school. Up to 13,000 Kenyan girls drop out of school every year as a result of pregnancy, and around 17 percent of girls have had sex before they turn 15. HIV prevalence in Kenyan women aged between 15 and 24 is about 5 percent, compared with just one percent for their male counterparts.
The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2004 found that better educated girls were less likely to marry early, more likely to practice family planning, and that their children had a higher survival rate.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, uneducated girls are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, which spreads twice as quickly among them than among girls who have had even some schooling.
The Ministry of Education has an HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education curriculum that focuses on upper-primary and secondary school, but no specific time is set aside for this, leaving teachers and school heads to fit in the subject at their discretion.
"I would like to see compulsory comprehensive HIV and sex education - and not just the bare bones, but something that goes further and teaches kids to become responsible for their actions and take greater control of their future," Muganda-Onyando said. "Not enough teachers have been trained for this type of education, so children are leaving school with academic qualifications and not many life skills."
These were not the only obstacles: the strong influence of fundamentalist Christians in HIV funding to Kenya had also played a part in preventing sex education from being taught in schools; and "There is also resistance from parents, many of whom feel school is not the place to learn about sex," she said.
This lack of information meant girls were not practising safe sex; a 2003 government survey noted that just 25 percent of women aged 15 to 24 reported using a condom the last time they had sex with a non-marital, non-cohabiting partner.
Schools ill-equipped for sex education
Schools in remote, rural areas and deprived urban areas are often ill-prepared to handle sex education; many have not seen the government's curriculum.
"We don't have sex education or HIV education; the government hasn't given us any materials or training so we don't know where to start," said Christopher Barassa, principal of Genesis Joy Primary and Secondary School in Mathare, Nairobi's second-largest slum.
Although registered with the Ministry of Education and the Nairobi City Council, the school is considered as 'non-formal' because of its location and lack of facilities; it has no playing ground or toilets, so the school is surrounded by 'flying toilets' - faecal matter wrapped in plastic bags and thrown away - and garbage. All the students are from the slum, and Barassa says keeping them in school can be difficult.
|When we investigate the pregnancies, it is almost always an older man ... over twenty and sometimes over thirty. We work with the local police to prosecute them.|
"Our drop-out rate is not very high, but teen pregnancy is a real problem," he told IRIN/PlusNews. The school's policy is to encourage girls to return to school after they give birth, but many felt too stigmatised or had no help to look after their children and therefore stayed away.
"When we investigate the pregnancies, it is almost always an older man ... over twenty and sometimes over thirty," he said. "We work with the local police to prosecute them - we recently had a 31-year-old man arrested for marrying one of our students who was just 15."
He noted that many parents in the slum had inadequate control because work kept them away from their children, sometimes for days. As a result, children learnt about sex from the wrong sources, such as the numerous video halls that allowed children to view pornographic films.
"The girls also have to live in one room with their parents until they are mature, and many of them witness their parents having sex, so they learn about it early," Barassa said. "Sometimes they get a man when they are still young in order to get out of that situation."
More sex education, less sex
The CSA runs projects aimed at lowering the drop-out rate for girls and teaching them about sexual and reproductive health, including HIV. "The projects train teachers to impart life skills, create safe spaces in schools where girls can freely discuss the issues they are facing, and foster mentor-protégé relationships between older and younger students, so the younger ones have somewhere to turn," CSA's Muganda-Onyando said.
"One of the big problems has been the breakdown of our traditional African systems, where an aunt or grandmother was responsible for sex education ... people say discussions about sex are taboo in Africa, but this is not true," she said. "We lost those systems through colonisation and modernisation, and they haven't been replaced; these projects are trying to give children back that support system."
The CSA also establishes ties with the community, encouraging parents to take an active role in teaching their children about sex, and to behave more responsibly themselves.
The initiative, which is being implemented in more than 100 schools around the country, has had positive results so far: participating schools have noted a significant drop in teen pregnancy, higher retention and completion rates of school education, and improved self-esteem and confidence among girls, which in turn has led to higher scores in exams.
"Girls also need to be supported with uniforms, books, and other material necessities for school," said Principal Barassa. "If a girl has everything she needs for school, she can stay in school and concentrate on her studies, and she will not look for an older man to buy them for her in exchange for sex."