Let's Talk About Sex

The lack of comprehensive sexual education in Kenyan schools marginalizes women



The Mantle Image school Kenya
Kenya - Kibera Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya.  Credit ARC - The Alliance of Religions and Conservation



In the last 10 years, Kenya has made significant strides toward becoming a more progressive and modernized nation. A now bustling East African hub, Kenya has established itself on the world stage as a country on an economic upswing, with exciting growth potential in a wide array of industries. Doing Business 2019: Training for Reform, a report that compares business regulation and opportunities across 190 economies, ranks Kenya in the top 10 nations with the most significant economic development, having jumped from 80 to 61 in the rankings.


While this progression is commendable and should be celebrated, there are aspects of the Kenyan workforce that remain in the dark ages, the most alarming being the under-representation of women in the professional sector. A recent economic survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics confirmed the severity of the gender-skewed nature of employment, finding that women make up only 36.5 percent of the active workforce. This inequality is shockingly prevalent across industries. For example, there are eight times as many men as women in the administrative and support services sector, making it the most imbalanced industry in the Kenyan economy. Similarly, the manufacturing industry employs four times more men than women.


Kenyan women have been, and continue to be, professionally marginalized because of traditional gender roles that are still intertwined in Kenyan culture. Kenyan women are only valued as homemakers and caregivers, building and maintaining the household that the male counterpart provides. This archaic notion restricts women from contributing to important national development goals.


A multi-layered discussion about Kenyan culture and the mistreatment of Kenyan women is the first step in initiating change. This discussion must address a taboo topic that is at the root of women’s rights issues: sex education. Most Kenyan schools, public or private, do not have any form of sexual education courses to help students understand their bodies, sexuality, and how to explore both safely. The few schools that do offer sexual education do not offer comprehensive courses.


Comprehensive sexual education refers to a sexual education program that is medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate. It should include lessons on the benefits of delaying sexual intercourse while providing information about normal reproductive development, contraception—including long-acting reversible contraception methods—and barrier protection to prevent sexually transmitted infections. While this definition leaves room for interpretation, the most important aspect of comprehensive sexual education is ensuring that the program is well-rounded, giving youth a plethora of information regarding practicing safe sex.


The lack of access Kenyan young people have to comprehensive sexual education is impacting the country more than its citizens know. By neglecting to provide the tools and support needed to safely explore their budding sexual curiosities, they understand sex through the prism of problematic traditional gender norms that exist within Kenyan culture. Unfortunately, Kenyan women still have the insurmountable task of combatting the societal notion that they are required to be subservient and inferior to men. This societal dynamic is rooted in tribal ritual and traditions, in which women are often pushed to the sidelines to allow men and the male experience to be the focal point. It also perpetuates a dangerous undercurrent for women, especially in spaces in which society does not define the nature of their presence. When a woman is “out of place,” it inspires male aggression and over-exertion of dominance. 


The inclination for aggression and dominance toward women is directly translated to sex and sexuality. The lack of candid conversations about sex with Kenyans at an early age encourages perceiving sexual activity as a tool to maintain the status quo. While both men and women are affected by not having a comprehensive sexual education program in school, it has a more significant negative impact on Kenyan women and their futures. With society’s focus on men and male dominance, Kenyan women are coerced into the belief that their role in life is to serve their male counterparts. In regard to sex, this belief manifests as women not having the tools or self-awareness to protect and advocate for themselves. Kenyan women have children at a young age and are more susceptible to sex related health issues, both of which often derail their professional and academic pursuits. Almost a quarter of women have their first child by the age of 18 and nearly half by the age of 20. Instead of preparing for college, Kenyan women are preparing for motherhood.


The dire need for comprehensive sexual education in primary and secondary schools gained national attention after the presentation of the Reproductive Health Care Bill by Senator Judith Achieng Sijeny. The bill called for giving prepubescent and adolescent children unhindered access to comprehensive sexual education and confidential services to seek out additional information. At the time Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi rejected the proposed legislation due to his personal opinion and backlash from religious groups, parents, and teachers arguing that sexual education would allow an “introduction of immorality” in schools.


Contrary to the conservative groups’ arguments, not having conversations about sex with children at the primary and secondary school level is more harmful than protective. Children experience natural curiosities about their bodies. Not having access to tools to help better understand sexual curiosities and desires is detrimental to the development of a healthy relationship with sex.


By ignoring the legislative need for mandated sex education courses in schools, the Kenyan government is violating women’s rights. The government has an obligation to give the young generation the tools and support to become active members in society. The future of the country depends on it. Kenyan youth need to understand the complexities of sex and initiating those kinds of conversation will make space for instrumental conversations about rape culture, women’s rights, and the effects of toxic patriarchal oppression.


A study found that only four in ten sexually active Kenyan teenage girls use a modern method of contraception, even though the majority of them want to avoid pregnancy. Another recent survey found that in Kenyan schools, only a quarter of the female students knew that contraceptive pills are to be taken by females, not males.


Kenyan women have limited options if they do get pregnant and do not want to carry the baby to term. The Constitution of Kenya, revised in 2010, offers ambiguous language regarding abortion, aiming to decrease the harrowing number of women who lose their lives from unsafe abortion procedures. Prior to its 2010 revision, the Kenyan constitution strictly outlawed termination of a pregnancy. The confusing nature of current legislation has prompted the country to continue to view abortion as an illegal act. Most hospitals and clinics in Kenya don’t offer abortion services and will refuse to consult women considering termination. If a young woman or teenager gets pregnant, her safest option is to keep the baby.


Because of the limited and sometimes dangerous options available to women who do not want to carry a baby to term, young pregnant women are backed into a corner and are forced to have the child. Having a child, in lieu of pursuing their education or other professional opportunities, ultimately narrows their options in the workforce. Most women in Kenya end up working as “house helps,” maids or caregivers. Ignoring the need for sex education in schools reinforces the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, removed from the professional sector.


To combat the government’s failure to protect women’s rights, there are a wide array of organizations that are committed to supporting women and providing the tools they need to make an impact in the professional sector. The Grassroots Empowerment Initiative (GEMINI), helped more than 200 teen mothers by giving them access to economic and educational opportunities through training and skills-building. Similarly, BEADS for Education improves the status of Kenyan girls through education, linking young women from 5th grade to college with educational sponsors. These organizations are paving the way for more female representation in the workforce. As national conversations about sex education continue to develop, organizations committed to supporting women’s right should offer sponsorship opportunities to its participants. 


Kenyan women are multi-faceted beings who, with the support of the Kenyan government, could continue to push Kenya towards economic advancement. Paving the way for women to hold positions across industries will transform the country. A woman’s perspective is unparalleled, and with access to education and support from a young age, Kenyan women will change the country and the world.


Women, Women's Rights, Sexuality, Sex, Kenya, Sex Ed