Background: Approximately one in every five adolescent girls in Kenya has either had a live birth or is pregnant with her first child. There is an urgent need to understand the language and symbols used to represent adolescent pregnancy, if the current trend in adolescent pregnancy is to be reversed. Agreement on the definition of a societal problem is an important precursor to a social issue's political prioritization and priority setting.
Methods: We apply the Public Arenas Model to appraise the environments, definitions, competition dynamics, principles of selection and current actors involved in problem-solving and prioritizing adolescent pregnancy as a policy issue. Using a focused ethnographic approach, we undertook semi-structured interviews with 14 members of adolescent sexual reproductive health networks at the national level and conducted thematic analysis of the interviews.
Findings: We found that existing definitions center around adolescent pregnancy as a "disease" that needs prevention and treatment, socially deviant behaviour that requires individual agency, and a national social concern that drains public resources and therefore needs to be regulated. These competing definitions contribute to the rarity of the topic achieving traction within the political agenda and contribute to conflicting solutions, such as lowering the legal age of consenting to sex, while limiting access to contraceptive information and services to minors.
Conclusion: This paper provides a timely theoretical approach to draw attention to the different competing definitions and subsequent divergent interpretations of the problem of adolescent pregnancy in Kenya. Adolescent reproductive health stakeholders need to be familiar with the existing definitions and deliberately reframe this important social problem for better political prioritization and resource allocation. We recommend a definition of adolescent pregnancy that cuts across different arenas, and leverages already existing dominant and concurrent social and economic issues that are already on the agenda table.