What Women Want

By Sanchita Sharma | June 19, 2012 | Kenya

Much like India, Kenya makes excellent laws very efficiently and then fails to implement them as efficiently. As a result of the government's spectacular failure to ensure men are not more equal than women, many women continue to live under the shadow of violence.

A pregnant girl waits her turn with her mother at Nairobi's Pumwani Maternity Hospital.

One in five women in Kenya -- 21%-- experience sexual violence both within and outside marriage, but less than 1% report it, shows the country's Demographic Health Survey.  It's one of the major reasons why 18% women have had their first child before they turn 19, forcing them to drop out of school to raise their baby in what is often a single-parent family.

"We make laws against gender violence, but don't implement it," says Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando, deputy director of the international NGO PATH.

She says those who are not raped are coerced into sex with gifts as mundane as soap, sanitary tissues and lotion, which they need but cannot afford. Strange as it may sound, Kenya's Centre for the Study of Adolescents (CSA) has a scheme offering packs of basic toiletries to girls to keep them off unsafe sex and in school.

CSA's Down the Drain report on the cost of teenage pregnancy and school dropout, estimated that about 35% girls between 16 and 20 were still in school in 2008, compared to about 50% boys.

Young parents wait to get heir newborns vaccinated.

Teenage pregnancies, coupled with many being too poor to buy tampons and sanitary tissues, are among the leading causes of young girls dropping out of school. "More girls enrol in primary school than boys but most drop out at puberty, often because they don't have basic sanitary facilities at home and at school," says Muganda-Onyando. Some estimates say one in three girls drop out before high school. The worst performing district is Kaloleni, where nearly 80% girls dropped out of high school, a drop-out rate double that of boys there.

But things are looking better, with some districts showing more girls finishing high school. "Some women are even going back to school to improve their prospects," says Muganda-Onyando.

But the social resistance to even this fledgling sign of independence is huge, not just from the husbands but also the neighbours and the extended clan. "It's almost immediately perceived as a sign of infidelity. 'Where is your woman going? Are you sure she's going to school?' are just some of questions that prompt the husband to force her to stay home," says Muganda-Onyando.

Not falling in line leads to violence, and many young women are forced to choose between an education and motherhood.

Their inability to negotiate ends up with many girls in their teens holding premature babies that weigh as little as 1.5 kg, which is not an uncommon sight at Nairobi's Pumwani Maternity Hospital,  the largest maternity hospital in all of east and central Africa. Twenty young mum's sit on wooden benches resembling an assembly line outside the neonatal unit feeding their unbelievingly small babies, almost all born weiging under 2 kg. Babies weighing under 2.5 kg are classified as underweight.

Young mum-in-waiting at Pumwani Maternity Hospital.

One chuckling 4 kg baby looks completely of place among the underweight and jaundiced tots. "He weighs too much, so we've put him under observation," says Dr Daniel Kamau, the clinician in-charge. Four kg is what a normal, healthy baby weighs in a developed country.

Healthy mothers out of their teens have healthy babies and getting girls back in school is the obvious way forward. Data from India's National Family Health Survey-3, the country’s largest health survey of a representative sample of 83,703 from 29 states, shows that almost two in five (37%) married women have experienced physical and sexual violence -- threatening, beating, shaking, choking, rape -- at least once. Yet, abuse against women was the lowest in the more educated and affluent Jain community (13%), compared to Buddhist/Neo-Buddhist women, who reported the highest level of violence (41%). Again, violence was much higher among marginalised women from the scheduled castes and tribes than others.

When the answer stares you in the face, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Keeping girls in school has worked the world over, it will work for Kenya too.

Sanchita Sharma, health editor at Hindustan TImes, is blogging from the International Reporting Project's reproductive health-themed trip to Kenya.

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