NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Desperate female students used to knock on Catherine Tweni’s door almost every day, needing emergency treatment for self-administered abortions.
Tweni, a nurse at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), 35 km (22 miles) from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, often had to rush them to the operating theatre.
“Most of them used to come with bleeding which was dangerous... maybe going into shock because of incomplete abortion,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Abortion is rarely available in public hospitals in Kenya and many women do not know how to access a safe abortion.
Young women who wanted to terminate pregnancies used to buy pills over the counter in pharmacies, Tweni said.
“They were told: ‘When you start bleeding, rush to the hospital’,” she said, standing in the campus’s leafy grounds.
Misoprostol, which causes contractions of the womb, can be used for pregnancies up to 12 weeks. It is supposed to be taken with medical supervision in case of complications.
But the number of young women at the university seeking help for DIY abortions has fallen dramatically, Tweni said, since the introduction of a new sex education club two years ago.
Pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections have also dropped, she said, while the number of students coming for contraceptives has risen to 20 to 50 a month from one or two.
Some 3,500 students at JKUAT have taken part in the Brighter Futures club, which encourages them to write life plans with weekly discussions ranging from careers and relationships to health and finance.
“It’s just so fun,” said Lilian Mutheu, 20, who is studying construction management. “You are told about money matters, how to know your values, your personality and setting life goals.”
After writing a life plan, she stopped hanging out with “bad friends” who encouraged her to skip classes and drink alcohol.
Students also receive a booklet explaining the pros and cons of condoms versus pills, injectible contraceptives and implants.
“We try to demystify the various methods,” said one of the club leaders, 23-year-old Felicity Karimi, explaining that many girls believed contraceptives would make them infertile.
In conservative Kenya, parents and teachers rarely discuss sex openly with teenagers, leaving them to glean information from friends, the media and the internet.
There was uproar over plans in 2014 to introduce comprehensive sex education in schools, with critics charging it would encourage immorality.
One-quarter of sexually active Kenyan women have an unmet need for family planning, 2014 government data shows, and one in five girls aged 15 to 19 are pregnant or mothers.
“Sex is there,” said JKUAT’s Dean of Students Emmah Omulokoli. “Whether you talk about it or not, it is going on among young people.”
Almost two-thirds of students at JKUAT say they are sexually active, according to research by Jhpiego, a charity affiliated with the John Hopkins University in the United States which is supporting the club.
“This is not a family planning programme,” said Jhpiego’s project leader Manya Dotson.
“This is a programme about helping young people get excited about their futures... and then thinking about what are the realistic things that might get in the way of that.”
One year after the club began, the percentage of sexually active students at JKUAT using a modern contraceptive increased to 72 percent from 52 percent, Jhpiego said.
There are plans to introduce the club in almost 30 other universities across Kenya.
Kinyua Charles Karuri, 21, picks up free condoms from the campus hospital with a gang of friends.
“I come with my boys,” he said. “It boosts your confidence.”
At the club, they played a game called #condommania where different groups race to put a condom on a plastic model.
“It’s a good game. It’s like an icebreaker,” he said. “It turns us into professional guys during sex.”
The club is not without its detractors. The Christian Union is a powerful force on campus, as many students come from religious homes where they learn that premarital sex is a sin.
“According to them, the church is teaching us not to have sex outside marriage and I am advocating for the opposite,” said club leader Karimi.
“We are not telling the students to have sex. We are just telling them if they decide to have sex, there are options that can ensure that they have safe sex.”
Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Ros Russell