Homeless, hungry and pregnant. That was the state of tens of teenage mothers before they were rescued and housed at Nyeri's Serene Haven in Chaka, Kieni Constituency.
On our visit, we find a teenage mothers sitting across each other engaged in chats and giggles, while a baby boy is lying on a mattress playing at their feet. His mother, a 15-year-old girl, was rescued from the streets after she was abandoned by her family. Another girl, who is pregnant, is cleaning dishes at the rear of the home.
Around the world, teenage pregnancy robs girls of their childhoods, their education and futures. These pregnancies tend to be the result of having few choices in life. It was this reality that nudged Elizabeth Wanjiru and her husband Kelvin Ndegwato to start the home and also serve as a secondary school for underage mothers 10 months ago.
The girls' school, which is set to open its doors starting January, already has 32 students confirmed to enroll next month. Ndegwa says 100 other girls are yet to make up their mind on their admission.
"I started this place because I know how it feels to need care when you're a teenager and pregnant... because I have been there," says Wanjiru, the proprietor. She fell pregnant at 17 after clearing high school education. Gutted with fear, she broke the news to her parents who to her surprise nurtured her until she delivered a baby boy.
"They took care of me without reprimanding me for my mistakes and even went on to take me to university as they took care of my child," she recalls. In an attempt to end the stigma subjected to girls who fall pregnant in their teen years, Wanjiru says the Serene Haven is an inspiration to change societal norms.
"I felt bad because my dreams had been shuttered because I had fallen pregnant. But I was supported and I owe it to the community," she narrates.
To admit the children to the home, she uses court committal letters and children officers who identify destitute pregnant girls with no one to run to. "We give them a week to settle in, acclimatize with their new home and then give them social-psycho support to cushion them from pregnancy traumas," she says.
The main challenge that has rocked the home since she started it is transforming the mindset of the young girls to motherhood.
The establishment will provide special services for the student mothers to ensure they continue with their education without being separated from their children. The school has hired matrons who will be taking care of the children at the daycare section while their mothers attend classes.
Currently, the school is only enrolling for students from Form One to Three and it attracts a fee of Sh25,200 per term, baby's expenses included. Teachers employed by the institution will also be required to undergo counselling monthly on how to handle the students. Some of the girls are rescued from the streets, early marriages while others are victims of sexual assault.
Wanjiru says she sets herself as an example that despite being a teenage mum, she went ahead to attain a degree in social works from the University of Nairobi.
At the home, they navigate through daily chores indicated in a duty rota with future aspirations being a major topic. The girls are expected to set realistic goals for themselves to take up after giving birth and weaning their newborns-- mainly going back to school.
At the home, they have doctors and counsellors who have volunteered to talk to them through the pregnancy trimesters and mentor them after giving birth.
They are also able to access medical services at the Nyeri County Hospital at a fee that is provided for by Wanjiru who runs the home alongside her husband. Wanjiru says often, they rehabilitate the girls and some manage to reconcile with their parents and are taken back home.
She prays that well-wishers would come on board and donate food stuff and other items for the girls, who are part of an alarming national statistic.
The State Department for Gender estimates that in Kenya, 45 per cent of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence and with 14 percent having experienced sexual violence.
In June, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the National Government Administration Officers (NGAO) to act swift and avert a crisis after it emerged that tens of thousands of girls had been impregnated during the Covid lock-down.
"I am concerned by the increase in the teenage pregnancies desiring this period. We must bring these unfortunate trends to an end," he said, ordering the National Crime and Research Centre to investigate the rising cases of teen pregnancy, and violation of children's rights.
"I direct the centres to prepare an advisory to security agency and initiate the prosecution of violators."