By Lydia Opee

Motherhood is a significant and crucial part of life for many women around the world. For women in communities where motherhood is highly desired, motherhood and child bearing is normally considered important to a woman’s identity.

Despite this, early motherhood, occurring at a critical developmental stage of young girls’ life, has been identified as having adverse social, economic and even health consequences. Globally, early pregnancies have always remained a public concern most so in developing countries.

Higher education does not have a strong history of supporting students who have become mothers while still learning. In most universities in Kenya, female students who have children are not offered any accommodation facilities in the institution. As more higher learning institution continue to admit women in pursuit of various courses, there is an increasing need of understanding personal and institutional barriers that women face as they choose to become parents, planned or unplanned.

Women who have become parents while still studying are usually caught in conflicting demands of trying to balance between motherhood and their academic work. Throughout human life history, women usually assume the primary role of childbearing. This is not exempted in university setting, despite the rare occasions when father of the child is present, they rarely assist in taking care of the child either financially or even physical presence. This therefore, makes it really hard for women to balance between motherhood and education.

In Kenyan universities, female students who are between the age of 18 and 22 are among the 12% to 23% percentage of women who become pregnant. Rongo University is not exempted. This University is located 11 kilometres from Rong town and 2.5 kilometres off Rongo-Migori Highway. The university has a total 6347 students. Female students taking up higher number as compared to male students. Despite this, female students in this institution usually find it really hard to proceed smoothly with their education because of the challenges they face in the midst.

Despite the challenges young mothers face as they strive on completing their studies in Rongo University, there is usually a favourable environment which enables them to balance between parenting and academics. The university usually allows students to defer their studies till a later date in which it will be favourable to them. Normally, mothers take advantage of this. A good number of young mothers usually defer their studies till a child reach a certain year, mostly one year.

In every Kenyan learning institution, every student has an equal right to study without any kind of discrimination. In cases where the student-mother has no one to help her take care of the child, majority of lecturers in the institutions usually allow these students to attend classes with their babies. In order to support these students who are striving not to drop out of school, a number of lecturers sometimes offer financial assistance to the students.

Anne Awuor Odeka is an alumnus of Rongo University. She graduated in the year 2019. Anne got pregnant when she was in her first year of study. Being that she was still a teenager and the pregnancy was not planned, the young mother went through a lot of challenges as she was also trying to proceed with her studies.

Anne Awuor Odeka left, her three-year-old son and her mother on graduation day at Rongo University.

“Motherhood is not a simple journey no matter what stage of life one is at. It is a challenging experience more so if one is a first- time parent. As a single mum, juggling studies and motherhood, the challenges were insurmountable,” Odeka said.

“Being a single mom in a school setup with no one ready to help me in taking care of my child drove me to leave school and stay home with my mum. It was truly not easy traveling to and from school each and every school day. It was hectic and expensive.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an exclusive breastfeeding of babies through their very first six months for better growth and development of the baby. The organisation also emphasises on the benefits of breastfeeding to mothers as it promotes faster weight loss after birth and reduces postpartum bleeding. Even though student-mothers in Rongo University opt to find a way of balancing between learning and childbearing, majority still fall short as a child demands full attention.

“The establishment of day-cares and breastfeeding areas around the school would have amounted to a smooth learning experience for me. I could have stayed at school instead of leaving for home and taking up the burden of commuting to and from school every day. I could have also maximised the school’s facilities like libraries since I would have been having peace of mind that my baby is nearby and being taken care of. Since my baby would have been in a safe environment this would have given me a humble time to read: I would have managed to attain first class honours”

Dorcas Mukai a third-year student at Rongo university pursuing International Relations narrated her one-year motherhood journey. Mukai got pregnant at the age of 19 years when she was in first year, second semester. The teenager was first favoured by the pandemic break when government ordered learning institutions to be closed. However, when Mukai resumed, she was forced to attend classes with her four-month year old month baby.

Dorcas Mukai a third-year student at Rongo University with her five months year olds daughter

“I gave birth during the period when we were on a pandemic holiday. I was able to take good care of my child during her first four months. She received necessary attention, and truly she was a healthy baby. However, when we came back to school, I had no one to assist me in taking care of the baby therefore forcing me to attend lectures with her. Despite lecturers in my faculty allowing me to attend classes with my baby, it is usually hard to concentrate as the baby demands full attention and cannot settle in one place for two hours.”

Mukai revealed that she has been having financial problem: Having to take care of her needs together with that of her baby.

“Being that my parents have no reliable source of income, affording my baby’s needs together with mine is not easy. Therefore, being able to employ a house maid to assist is impossible. However, sometimes I get financial support from lecturers in my school,” Dorcas stated.

In fourth year is Mary Mathenji who had to defer one academic year after she got pregnant in her second year of study. Mary stated how her life has never been the same ever since she got into motherhood life.

Mary Mathenji, fourth year student in school of information, communication and media studies, with her baby.

“I had my baby when I was 20 years old. Being a first-time mom and a student, I found it really hard to proceed with my studies since I had no one in school who could have helped in taking care of my child. This therefore forced me to defer one academic year in which I resumed this year, 2021. The fact that I was able to resume my study is what excites me more because despite the fact that my pregnancy was unplanned, I am still certain that I will graduate and achieve my dreams,” Mary said.

Despite the fact that Rongo University has not officially approved that students can attend classes with their children, a number of lecturers in the institution allow student-mothers to do so. In the faculty of information, communication and media studies lecture, Pelesia Okuthe recalls how she had to allow a student to do her main exam with a baby.

“Balancing between classwork and taking care of a child has not been easy for our students who are also mothers. The hardest part comes in when these students are to sit for their exams when they do not have any one to help them take care of the child. In one scenario, I was forced to allow the young mother to do her main exam with her child because there was no option. However, being that we were two supervisors it was easier for us to continue with invigilation process: I accompanied her when she wanted to breastfeed the child as the other supervisor invigilates,” she said.

Theresia Kamuya and her son.

Rongo University is offering a favourable environment to young mothers who still wish to continue with their studies. However, majority still find it hard to juggle between the two. Speaking on the same is Theresia Kamuya, a fourth-year student who is pursuing computer science. The young parents narrate how challenging this journey of motherhood has been ever since she got pregnant in her third year of study. Even though the university allows these students to attend classes with their babies, Kamuya said she was unable to do so as her course is mostly practical, a challenge which forced her to take her child back home.

“I am a student of computer science, sometimes we have practical units and even my Continous Assessment Tests (CATs) are usually engaging. It was really challenging for me to balance between my studies and taking care of my son. Because of this, I was forced to take him home as I proceed with my studies,” Theresia stated.

Gender and Mainstreaming Committee of Rongo University has opted to establish day-cares and breastfeeding facilities around the institution. This is as a result of ensuring student-mothers are able to attend classes without inconvenience to them, their children or other students.