In a society plagued with myths and misconceptions about what adolescent girls should and should not do in terms of their sexuality, effective communication strategies will be an invaluable addition.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic commenced in 2020 the media has been awash with reports of youth failing to adhere to lockdown measures. Understandably when schools closed indefinitely from March to September 2020, many young people who were previously in school were left idle. Efforts to roll out online learning to students across the country presented accessibility challenges such as lack of wi-fi and computer equipment. When schools reopened in January 2021, 16% of girls and 8% of boys did not report back to school, for reasons including unintended pregnancy or lack of fees. Unintended pregnancies among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) are an ongoing issue in Kenya and AGYW continue to face a higher risk of acquiring HIV than their male peers. Reduced access to critical sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic risks exacerbating these issues.
This situation made me think about the factors that lead to unintended pregnancies among AGYW, including idleness, peer pressure, lack of information, and economic challenges. While youth were expected to abstain from sex during the last year, the reality was likely very different. Though the data is not yet complete, we may anticipate that an increase in the number of unintended pregnancies corresponds to an increase in the rate of condomless sex, and thus an increase in the incidence of HIV infection among this already vulnerable group.
The legacy of the pandemic upon AGYW will extend far beyond the pandemic itself. While some may view this as an issue only affecting women, in reality, this situation will impact the development of Kenya as a whole, as young women are deprived of educational and professional opportunities and face pregnancy and childbirth-related health risks. Like many issues of development, unintended pregnancies and a high incidence of HIV among AGYW need a multi-sectoral approach. Everybody must chip in, share their respective expertise, and contribute to meaningfully solve the problem – researchers notwithstanding.
The current UPTAKE study is an opportunity for researchers in HIV prevention technologies to learn from adolescent girls, young women, and female sex workers and leverage these insights to develop HIV prevention products that are responsive to the needs of these populations. The study will prioritize the perspectives and needs of the participants in the research and development of future prevention technologies and by extension the systems that will make these technologies accessible, affordable, available.
Understanding what goes on in a young girl’s mind when making decisions about her sexuality, as well as the environmental influences on her behavior, is important in order to understand how we can best assist in reducing the risk of unintended pregnancy and acquiring sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.
As a community liaison officer, finding appropriate ways to communicate the right information to youth is a key interest to me. In a society that is plagued with myths and misconceptions about what adolescent girls should and should not do in terms of their sexuality, effective communication strategies to engage with adolescent girls on current and future effective prevention products, as well as behavior change, will be an invaluable addition.