When Kenyan teenager Rosemary Olale found out she was pregnant, her guardians threw her out of their home in shame, despite the fact no one taught her about safe sex.
She didn’t dare tell them she was also HIV positive.
“You just feel like everybody doesn’t want you,” said Olale, sitting with a dozen other HIV positive women, each with a small child on her lap, in a small home in Nairobi’s Saika slums.
Olale, now 37, started the group in 2005 to provide other HIV positive women and young mothers with support in dealing with stigma, poverty and reproductive health issues.
Teenagers across Africa urgently need more information about sex to combat soaring rates of HIV and unwanted pregnancies, experts say, as widespread taboos and cultural conservatism prevent discussions in schools and homes.
“Where I come from, talking about the sex education with your girl is really difficult,” Olale told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
However, a growing number of businesses, charities and individuals are seeking to fill the gap in information.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Nailab, a Kenyan firm that supports technology startups, are behind the latest initiative, which targets entrepreneurs for their ideas on providing sex education through technology and social media.
Candidates in the I.AM campaign launched this month, have until next month to submit their ideas before four winners are chosen to receive training, mentorship and funding to develop their ideas further.
“All girls, all boys must have comprehensive sexuality education,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director. “That’s really when they can make the choice in their lives.”
Kenya pledged to improve access to sexual education and family planning services at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, but has had difficulty implementing new policies due to conservative opposition.
A bill to teach sex education and provide access to contraceptives in schools was introduced into Kenya’s upper house of parliament in 2014, provoking a national outcry.
“People are fearing that when you’re speaking about sex or when you’re speaking about sex education, it’s like losing your values,” said David Opoti Inzofu, a pastor at Nairobi’s Riruta Christ Bible Church, who openly discusses family planning with his congregation.
“There is no day I can remember where my mother or my father sat with me and discussed with me about sex. Never.”
Sex education and family planning are critical in delaying motherhood, reducing HIV rates and deaths from unsafe abortions, UNFPA says.
Some 29,000 young people aged between 15 and 24 are infected with HIV annually in Kenya, government data shows. New infections are spiking among adolescent girls who know less about HIV transmission than boys, it says.
One in five teenage girls are mothers, with some 13,000 dropping out of school each year to raise their children, UNFPA says.
Kenya is a hotbed of technological innovation in Africa, with technology giants such as Google, IBM and Microsoft setting up headquarters in Nairobi.
For an issue as taboo as sex, technology allows people to have anonymous and informative conversations without the fear of stigma or discrimination.
“(If) somebody builds a software that allows people to anonymously chat about their sexual challenges, and we see tens of thousands of young people using it — that will be the most exciting part of this,” said Sam Gichuru, chief executive of Nailab.
Technology can also reach many more people than face-to-face groups like Olale’s. Some 80 percent of Kenyans own a mobile phone, government data shows.
“A lot of these children are now getting access to mobile phones and technology,” said Siddharth Chatterjee, UNFPA’s representative in Kenya.
“Imagine the knowledge they can generate through that technological edge.”
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