KENYA: Grandparents struggle to keep teens in line

Grandparents discussing sex with their grandchildren is taboo
Nyando, 29 January 2009 (PlusNews) - It is early evening in Kisumu, the largest town in Nyanza Province, western Kenya, where Lillian Atieno, the teenage granddaughter of Peter Okong'o, 67, is putting on her make-up before going into town for what she describes as 'business'. In fact, she is a sex worker at Octopus, a popular nightclub.

"Since mum and dad died two years ago, I had to look for a way to get my needs ... prostitution is the most lucrative business around here," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

"My grandfather does not know what I go to do in Kisumu," she added. "Furthermore, he can't ask me because that is none of his business; he can control my younger siblings, but not me."

Atieno has underestimated her grandfather; Okong'o says he has a good idea of what she does when she goes out in the evenings. "Her parents died of HIV, and at times I watch her behave in a very irresponsible way," he said.

"I can only sympathise, because she dismisses me most of the time - thinks I am old and do not understand the modern world, and so I let her live in her world as she wants."

In the Luo culture prevalent in the area, being Atieno's grandfather means that even if he had words of wisdom to give her, certain topics are out of bounds, including matters related to sex.

"She is a grown up girl and it would be disgraceful for me to start discussing issues of sex with her - that amounts to chira [taboo in the Luo language] in our community," he said. "Maybe her grandmother would have, but she is also dead."

Approximately 1.2 million Kenyan children have been orphaned by AIDS. Nyanza Province, with the highest HIV prevalence in Kenya, also has one of the largest populations of orphans. According to HelpAge Kenya, an NGO working to empower older persons economically, 89 percent of orphans in Nyando District, where Kisumu is located, are cared for by their grandparents.

"These older people are most often very poor and unable to provide the needs of the orphans under their care, thus they have to engage in activities that would act as a source of income," said Maurine Odawa, a programme officer at HelpAge Kenya. "For girls, sex work becomes the easiest way to get this income."

Kenya does not have a social welfare system for its older citizens and the child welfare system is over-stretched so, for the most part, grandparents and their orphaned grandchildren are left to fend for themselves.

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"Take for example a young girl who needs sanitary towels, yet the grandparent can hardly afford even food; she has to get these needs even if it means getting into sex work," Odawa said.

Jennifer Awuondo has cared for three teenage grandchildren since their parents died eight years ago and admits that she can barely control their behaviour. "Initially they were very obedient, but later I do not know what got into their heads," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

"They do not listen to me any more and one of them, as you can see, is now sick [HIV-positive] after sleeping with widows here in the village. His older sister sleeps around with fishermen at the beach in the name of looking for money," she added.

"I don't know what I will do with them when they are all sick because I can see it coming very soon. It is sad when you know you lost your children to HIV, and you are again seeing the children they left in your care die because of the same disease."

Ruth Wanyama, the nurse in charge of the Ahero Health Centre in Nyando, said orphaned girls reported three out of every five teenage pregnancies registered by the health facility, and many of them also turned out to be HIV-positive.

HelpAge Kenya's Odawa said the best way to prevent orphans in poor homes from going off the rails was to ensure that they stayed in school as long as possible, or enrolled in vocational training schools where they could learn a skill that would give them an income.

"In our programmes across the country we try to train these young people in vocational skills, and provide soft loans to older carers to start income-generating activities. Giving the older carers some form of economic empowerment would also go a long way in alleviating the suffering, both for themselves and the orphans that they care for," Odawa said.

"If the older people can provide for some basic needs of these orphans, then it would cushion them - especially the young girls - from engaging in risky behaviours like sex work."


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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