Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Volume 38, Number 4, December 2012

Young Kenyan Women Are Less Likely to Finish 
School if They Have Dated or Had Sex

Young women in urban Kenya who begin dating or having sex have a reduced likelihood of completing secondary school, but the same is not true for young men, according to a recent study.1 Females 14 or older who have had at least two romantic or sexual partners are more likely than peers who have never dated or had sex to stop attending secondary school (hazard ratios, 2.2–3.3). Sexually experienced young women are especially likely to drop out, and their likelihood of doing so increases sharply with their number of sex partners (hazard ratios, 1.7–7.7); these associations may be attributable mostly to pregnancy and marital desires, as the relationship between number of partners and schooling largely disappears when these factors are taken into account. Among young Kenyan men, however, there is no link between school attendance and number of romantic and sexual partners; instead, the strongest predictors of dropping out include impregnating a partner (3.2) and having an income (2.8).

Understanding the relationship between schooling and dating behaviors is particularly important in a setting such as Kenya, where social norms related to the timing of sexual debut and marriage are rapidly changing, school dropout rates are high and gender gaps in education are wide. To assess the timing and sequence of transitions related to education and sexual and reproductive health, the researchers interviewed young people aged 18–24 in Kisumu, Kenya, with the aid of life-history calendars on which they recorded the months in the past 10 years in which important life transitions had occurred. They collected data on each of respondents’ romantic and sexual relationships, as well as on school enrollment and social and demographic characteristics. Because they expected the relationship between sexual activity and schooling to be bidirectional, the researchers used survival analyses to first examine whether sexual activity is associated with an increased risk of dropping out of secondary school and, second, to explore whether schooling is related to the timing of sexual debut.

The study, fielded in 2007, included data from 286 women and 322 men, who were selected using a random household sampling method. The samples were defined slightly differently for analyses of school dropout (which excluded participants who had left school before age 14) and those of sexual debut (which excluded participants who had had sex before age 10). In both samples, however, most participants were of Luo ethnicity (71% of women and 75–77% of men) and Catholic or Protestant faith (65–66% of women and 68–69% of men). Some 3–10% of women and 10–18% of men were earning an income when they either left school or became sexually active. 

In the school dropout analysis, 46% of women and 34% of men had stopped attending school without graduating, and 3% of women and 11% of men were still enrolled. By the end of the observation period—that is, by the time they graduated from school, dropped out, or (if still enrolled) completed the survey—72% of women and 86% of men had had a romantic or sexual partner, and 49% of women and 69% of men had had sex. Some 33% of women and 38% of men reported having wanted to marry a partner during the observation period; 13% of women had been pregnant, and 6% of men were aware of having impregnated a partner. 

The multivariate analysis showed that young women who had been in school at age 14 had an elevated risk of dropping out if they had had two (hazard ratio, 2.2) or three or more (3.3) romantic and sexual partners, compared with young women who had never dated or had sex. The association between school dropout and number of partners was even stronger when the analysis was restricted to sexual relationships: Compared with women who had never had sex, those who had had one, two or at least three sex partners were more likely to have left school early (1.7, 2.6 and 7.7, respectively). The link between number of sex partners and schooling may be driven largely by pregnancy and marital aspirations; when the investigators took these into account, sexually experienced women had an elevated likelihood of dropping out only if they had had three or more sex partners (3.8), and the risk of dropping out was substantially elevated among those who had ever been pregnant (3.8) or wanted to marry a partner (1.8). 

In contrast, dropping out was generally unrelated to men’s dating and sexual behaviors; the only exception was that men were more likely to have left school if they were aware of having impregnated a partner (3.2).

Several social and demographic measures were also associated with educational attainment. Women were at increased risk of dropping out if one or both of their parents had died (hazard ratios, 2.1–2.6, depending on the number and gender of deceased parents) or if they were Muslim (2.9). Members of both genders were less likely to have dropped out if their level of household assets fell into the middle or top, rather than bottom, tertile (0.2–0.4 for women and 0.2–0.3 for men), and more likely to have done so if they reported currently earning income (5.6 and 2.8, respectively). 

In the sample used to analyze sexual debut, 81% of women and 86% of men were sexually experienced at the time of the study. Only 5–6% of participants had not been in school at age 10, but 29% of women and 18% of men had dropped out by the time of their sexual debut (or, if sexually inexperienced, by the time of the survey). An additional 24% of women and 35% of men were in school at the time of sexual debut (or at the time of the survey) but had fallen behind their grade.

In a multivariate analysis, young women were less likely to have begun having sex if they were in school, whether on track for their age (hazard ratio, 0.3) or not (0.4), than if they had dropped out; those who had graduated also had a reduced likelihood of having had sex (0.6). Again, no association between sexual behavior and education was seen among men. Women and men in the wealthiest tertile were less likely to have initiated sexual activity than were their counterparts in the lowest asset category (0.6–0.7), while men whose mothers had died were more likely than those whose parents were both alive to have initiated sex (2.1). 

The researchers note that their use of a life-history calendar may have minimized some forms of reporting bias, and that this approach provides more precise sequencing of events than do surveys that assess change on a yearly basis. This precision was important in their study because nearly one-third of participants who left school became sexually active within one year. 

The investigators conclude that for young women, “transitions to becoming a mother and wife continue to conflict with the goal of finishing secondary school;” their findings suggest a pathway in which sexual activity leads to pregnancy, the development of marital aspirations and, eventually, school dropout. For men, however, the challenges to completing secondary school are different: Sexual activity has no apparent relationship with continuing school, but impregnating a partner or earning an income are major transitions that stand in the way of educational achievement. To increase school completion, the researchers recommend that policymakers “find ways of both encouraging the delay of some transitions to adulthood and at the same time accommodating students who have already become parents, spouses and wage earners.”—H. Ball


1. Clark S and Mathur R, Dating, sex, and schooling in urban Kenya, Studies in Family Planning, 2012, 43(3):161–174.