NYERI, Kenya (Reuters) – The sounds of baby coos and teenage giggles punctuate the lessons at Serene Haven Secondary, a school nestled into a hill below cloud-ringed Mount Kenya.
Here, 17 teenage mothers and pregnant girls – many of whom were forced out of their local schools – are getting a second chance to finish their education.
In a normal year, stigma, logistics and money compel around 13,000 pregnant girls to drop out, government data show. That is likely to spike this year.
COVID-19 lockdowns shut schools and fuelled an increase in adolescent pregnancies and sexual abuse, aid agencies say.
Emily, a tall 17-year-old, said she was assaulted by a man who had promised to tutor her while classes were closed. She asked not to be identified by her full name to protect her privacy.
“My mum could not let me go back to school,” said Emily, who is six months pregnant. “She was worried … they would be mean to me or tease me.”
Then Emily met Elizabeth Wanjiru Muriuki, an animated former social worker, who founded a judgement-free boarding school with day care and counselling services. Serene Haven opened in January when other Kenyan schools reopened.
The young mothers wander through the library and other school buildings with their babies in their arms. There is a matron on hand when needed and breastfeeding breaks between lessons.
“We only have three babies who are over one year old. The rest of the babies and the rest of the pregnancies all happened during the COVID time,” said Muriuki.
For 19-year-old mother Josephine Wanjiru, who has been out of school for two years, Serene Haven means she might achieve her dream of becoming a nurse – something she’d all but given up on.
“I was very excited because I did not expect something like this,” said Wanjiru as she breastfed her 17-month-old daughter.
Muriuki was herself a teen mother and went on to finish school and build a career.
“There are some girls who come here and are really downcast, they feel like this is the end of the world,” said Muriuki.
“I start with giving them my story … they are really encouraged – like ‘Ah, if you can do it, we can also do it.’”